“I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die…”

That line from “Folsom Prison Blues” still gets a reaction out of the crowds whenever he plays just as it got one from the inmates at Folsom Prison when he performed this song there live. In this day, though, of anything-goes, the line barely registers, though during the “Gangsta Rap” controversy several years ago, this song was thrown back at those who would accuse the rappers of glorifying violence.

It’s hard to imagine anything more vicious than shooting a man just to watch him die — it’s like something out of a Quentin Tarantino film (it’s no surprise that the man is a fan and contributed an essay to the new three-disc Cash set entitled, Love, God, Murder) — and yet Cash delivers it so matter-of-factly that it sounds like a downright normal thing for him to do. Soul artists like Marvin Gaye and Al Green were always torn between the spiritual and the sexual, the sacred and the profane: Johnny Cash had to reconcile his faith with what seemed like a ravenous appetite for destruction.

“Folsom Prison Blues,” for all of the controversy that has surrounded it, is actually a cautionary tale. “Far from Folsom Prison, that’s where I want to stay,” goes the last verse. The message is simple: Jail is not cool and being robbed of his freedom makes Cash hang his head and cry. When that “Gangsta Rap” dialogue was going on, the point that should’ve been brought up was that both “Folsom Prison Blues” and much rap of the time didn’t glorify violence, but instead used their songs to advise against it: If you’ve never done wrong before, you have no credibility; what they, Cash and the rappers, had done needed to be illustrated so that their points would carry weight.

This issue of Freaky Trigger is dedicated to Bad Music. Well, they don’t come any badder than Johnny Cash. So here’s to the original “American Bad Ass” (no offense, Kid Rock).