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Shot Man in Reno

When I was just a baby, my mama told me, son
Always be a good boy, don’t ever play with guns
But I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die
When I hear that whistle blowin’,
I hang my head and cry.
I bet there’s rich folks eatin’ in a fancy dining car

They’re probably drinking coffee and smoking big cigars
But I know I had it coming, I know I can’t be free

“Folsom Prison Blues” cover
extract from: Folsom Prison Blues by J. Cash (1955)

With the pithy and catchy title “I Shot a Man in Reno: A History of Death by Murder, Suicide, Fire, Flood, Drugs, Disease, and General Misadventure, as Related in Popular Song“, – named of course for Johnny Cash’s great Folsom Prison Blues – this book by Graeme Thomson looks pretty damn interesting!

Death and murder – almost as much as sex and lust! – have been staples of great music back from earliest times up through the traditional Irish / Scots ballads (which set the cornerstone for much of modern music) on to the twentieth century via various genres (esp. blues, traditional/folk and country – via the likes of Leadbelly, Cash, John Lee Hooker, Hank Williams and Woody Guthrie, to name just a few), often with the same characters being sung about in different songs (Stagger Lee, etc), right on through to more recent times and significant artists such as Nick Cave (especially in the “Murder Ballads” LP- which we’ve already posted somewhere) and, moreso, Bob Dylan (most significantly in “World Gone Wrong” – which we’ve already posted somewhere).

The recent excellent album from Bob Frank and John Murry (World Without End (2006) – which we’ve already posted somewhere) strongly carried forth the tradition into the twenty-first century.

And it won’t end there!

I want to get my mitts on this book real soon!

You can check it out here;

More importantly, for getting a free copy of the book to me, contact !!!

A History of Death by Murder, Suicide, Fire, Flood, Drugs, Disease, and General Misadventure, as Related in Popular Song Cover <!– begin ingram look-inside

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Synopses & Reviews

Publisher Comments:

Ask the gangsta rap devotee. Ask the grizzled blues fanatic and the bearded folk fan. Ask the goth and the indie kid.

Ask and they will all tell you the same thing: death and popular music have forever danced hand-in-hand in funereal waltz time. The pop charts and the majority of radio stations’ playlists may conspire to convince anyone listening that the world spins on its axis to the tune of “I love you, you love me” and traditional matters of the heart. The rest of us know that we live in a world where red roses will one day become lilies and that death is the motor that drives the greatest and most exhilarating music of all.

“Death music” is not merely a byword for bookish solemnity, or the glorification of murder, drugs and guns. Over the course of the last hundred years it has also been about teenage girls weeping over their high school boyfriend’s fatal car wreck; natural disasters sweeping whole communities away; the ever-evolving threat of disease; changing attitudes to old age; exhortations to suicide; the perfect playlist for a funeral; and the thorny question of what happens after the fat lady ceases to sing. Which means that for every “Black Angel’s Death Song” there is a “Candle in the Wind,” and for every “Cop Killer” there is “The Living Years.” Death, like music, is a unifying force. There is something for every taste and inclination, from murderous vengeance to camp sentimentality and everything in between.

Drawing upon original and unique interviews with artists such as Mick Jagger, Richard Thompson, Ice-T, Will Oldham and Neil Finn among many others, I Shot a Man in Reno explores how popular music deals with death, and how it documents the changing reality of what death means as one grows older. It’s as transfixing as a train wreck, and you won’t be able to put it down.

As an epilogue, I Shot a Man in Reno presents the reader with the 50 greatest death songs of all time, complete with a brief rationale for each, acting as a primer for the morbidly curious listener.


“Death in popular song comes in all shapes and sizes, but Thomson (Willie Nelson: The Outlaw) skids wildly from one genre and artist to another without pausing to draw larger conclusions. Divided into chapters covering everything from the common teenage penchant for suicide songs to the evolution of murder ballads and gangsta rap, Thomson displays considerable knowledge of music past and present, but his conclusions are often less than profound: death as a ‘hallmark of teen rebellion’ (think James Dean); the Doors’ ‘The End’ signifying the late 1960s, Vietnam and ‘a world defined by death.’ In his most compelling section, entitled ‘Sweetness Follows: Into the Great Beyond’ (from the R.E.M. songs of the same names), Thomson explores musicians’ approach not to death itself, or even the journey toward it, but to what happens next. Though Thomson admits in the introduction that more death songs will be omitted than included, frustrated readers may wish he had taken his own advice and culled his examples to support a focused thesis.” Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)


“This isnt a history; its a commentary. Damned good one, too, by a journalist who knows his stuff and struts it….Enthralling from the first page, he guarantees rereaders…” Booklist


“Rock songs…are as much about death as they are about love, argues Greame Thomson in his brilliant I Shot a Man In Reno.” ForeWord magazine


Drawing upon original and unique interviews with such artists as Mick Jagger, Richard Thompson, Ice-T, Neil Finn, and many others, I Shot a Man in Reno explores how popular music deals with death, and how it documents the changing reality of what death means as one grows older.

About the Author

Graeme Thomson is a regular contributor to The Word, the Observer, Time Out, the Herald, and the Sunday Herald. He is the author of Complicated Shadows: The Life and Music of Elvis Costello (Canongate, 2004) and Willie Nelson: The Outlaw (Virgin Books, 2006). He lives in Edinburgh.

Table of Contents

Prologue: The Art of Dying
1. “Death Ain’t Nothin’ New”: From John Barleycorn to John Walker’s Blues
2. Teenage Wildlife: From Sob to Suicide
3. Blood on the Floor: Music, Murder and Morality
4. How Does It Feel?: Death in the Sixties
5. Appetite for Self-Destruction: Oblivion Songs
6. Sweetness Follows?: Into the Earth, Into the Fire, and Into the Great Beyond
7. Gangsta Gangsta: Rap Reclaims the Murder Song
8. Sometimes It Snows in April: The Music of Loss
9. Who Wants to Live Forever?: The Fat Lady’s Songbook
10. Epilogue
Appendix: The 50 Greatest Death Songs

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September 12, 2008 Posted by | Graeme Thomson, Johnny Cash, OTHER_LITERATURE, _MUSIC | Leave a comment