Counterbalance

Johnny Cash - 'At Folsom Prison'

by Jason Mendelsohn and Eric Klinger

20 November 2015

This week, we're stuck in Folsom Prison, and time keeps draggin' on. Actually it went by pretty fast as we listened to the 157th most acclaimed album of all time. Do the roots of roots music start here?
 
cover art

Johnny Cash

At Folsom Prison

(Columbia)
US: May 1968
UK: May 1968

Klinger: The Great List, the compendium of critical hive-mindedness from which we still draw a good amount of inspiration, is a fascinating document, albeit one that demonstrates the extent to which critics the world over have fallen short in acknowledging some of your less traditionally cool genres. So while we spent the first couple years listening to way more trip-hop than I ever thought possible, country music, which is so ingrained in rock & roll’s DNA, has been all but ignored. In fact, the only artist to shatter the hayseed ceiling so far has been Johnny Cash, whose At Folsom Prison LP has been meandering around the back half of the 100s for years (it’s currently on the rise again, clocking in at No. 157). And for the record, I’m not counting Gram Parsons. Readers can go argue with me over on Facebook if they want.
  
But of course it’s going to be Johnny Cash. It has to be. Johnny Cash covers all the bases. You need a country star who’s also a musical progressive? Check. Palling around with Bob Dylan is nothing short of critical catnip. A regular progressive? Yep, aligning yourself with prisoners the same year Nixon and Agnew were building their law and order base was, make no mistake, a statement. A general badass? Check and mate. From his chemical intake to his sweet black wardrobe, Johnny Cash was ready to go head to head against any pop singer out there. Cash’s Sun records had already established his cred, and had he tilted the beat a little bit another way when he signed to Columbia, we’d be talking about him as a rocker first and foremost. Put all that together and it’s no surprise that At Folsom Prison is the go-to when the Critical Industrial Complex wants to talk C&W. Personally, I’d like to see everyone dig a little deeper, but I get it. How about you?

Mendelsohn: Can’t we count Ray Charles’ Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music? It has C&W in the title and everything.

Klinger: ...

Mendelsohn: Don’t look at me like that. I’m only being literal and contrary. I’m glad we’ve finally made it to a country record. As you just noted, and as I’ve complained about many times before, the list can be overly rockist with only a few odd detours down Other Genre Road. But who can blame the critics? C&W isn’t exactly the pinnacle of musical innovation. While the rock, jazz, and R&B groups of the 1960s were busy swapping licks and experimenting in technicolor, it seemed the country artists were doubling down on tradition, happily picking and whistling away in the black and white bunker of their own little world. Nashville was tough in those days, a very insular world that frowned upon the likes of Johnny Cash for his brash nature, overt love of drugs and unwillingness to walk someone else’s line. With Nashville stifling innovation, is it any wonder the artists making great music were unwilling to take risks? Risk and experimentation (and liberally lifting blues licks) is the foundation the Great List is built upon. C&W, at least mainstream C&W, wasn’t on par with rock. C&W had it’s supporters in the rock community, there were those who took note of the talent and tried to bridge the gap but those efforts were never enough.

Cash, on the other hand, lived like a rock star, dressed like a rock star and wrote transgressive music that made him a rock star. At Folsom Prison is dark and funny and so simplistic in its execution that it belies just how far ahead of everyone else he was in his respective genre. I think the simplicity is this record’s greatest strength and probably also it’s greatest weakness. I can’t help but laugh at the gallows humor, I can feel the walls closing in, and I’m always wowed by the ray of light provided by June Carter’s powerful voice but then I’m left wanting more as Cash spends a lot of time ruminating on the nature of imprisonment. Is it wrong to want more?

Klinger: Nashville has a lot to answer for, that’s for sure. And what we’re seeing here is the beginnings of another movement in the genre—one that more or less walked away from the establishment. Cash is sowing the seeds of the Outlaw Country movement here, thanks in large part to the emergence of producer Bob Johnston (RIP) as the head of Columbia Records’ country division, who gave Cash the go-ahead to release this album. As a result, the pair can also take some amount of credit for the undercurrent of alt-country roots music that has served as both a vibrant form in its own right and a running corrective to the steady decline of country & western civilization (thank you, Kurt Wagner).

Mendelsohn: Nashville should still be atoning for turning its back on Cash. And if that wasn’t enough, I would also like to point out all of the garbage that continues to trickle out of that town like a sick dog. Won’t somebody take modern country out into the woods and put an end to our misery? Why won’t it stop, Klinger? Why?

Klinger: It’s because Nashville was and is so reactionary, and it’s so busy chasing any mainstream trend in order to seem relevant, that the only way to subvert it is to rub its nose in its own “three chords and the truth” ethos—to force Nashville to consider what a sad old whore it’s become. You do that by never relenting in your commitment to your sound. That’s one of the things that makes At Folsom Prison so forceful and so influential. I’d also like to point out an interesting thing I learned that never occurred to me before. Ever wonder how he was able to begin the album by simply stating, “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash?” Usually when the star comes out onto the stage everybody starts hooting and hollering and so forth. He should have been drowned out. Turns out that was all on purpose (calling it “staged” seems a bit churlish), and the warden or whoever told the inmates to remain quiet until Cash delivered his trademark line. The things you learn!

Does that mean that it’s always an easy listen? No, of course not. It’s such an odd combination of stark reality (“The Wall”) and potty humor (“Flushed from the Bathroom of Your Heart”), all relentlessly performed with that trademark Cash sound, that you could be forgiven for wanting to put on something with a little more sonic variety. And the fact that so many songs wander off after about a minute and a half is sometimes a little jarring. But then, the humanity that lies at the heart of Johnny and (let’s face it, especially) June’s interactions with the audience is nothing short of inspiring.

Mendelsohn: By the middle of the record I’ve grown weary of Cash’s three chords and truth. It can be a long haul, there is only so much stark reality and low-brow humor I can stand (which is saying a lot because I offset the stark reality of my existence with a perpetual craving for toilet-based jokes). But then “Jackson” hits and I’m reminded why I like this album so much. You can hear the pleasure (and almost see it) in Cash’s voice when he talks about June. And then June hits the stage and the room seems to change. There is an electricity in Cash’s singing and playing and in the audience that had slowly been slipping away. It is just powerful and she acts as a perfect counterpoint to Cash’s imposing demeanor, a ray of light to show the real heart of the man in black. June never fails to send shivers down my spine whenever she picks up on the second verse. I find myself waiting for that moment. As good as Cash is on “Folsom Prison Blues”, and as acerbic or melodramatic as he can be at times, it isn’t until he sings with June that I feel we’ve been given a glimpse of the true artist within.

Klinger: That’s a very nice way of putting it, Mendelsohn—you’re clearly an old softie romantic underneath your gruff exterior. And while I’m not 100% sold on the idea that Cash’s artistry is only truly revealed in the presence of his muse (I’ll refer you to the American Recordings as Exhibit A), I can agree with you that we get a much clearer perspective on Johnny Cash the man when he’s with June. Slightly mawkish biopics aside, there’s something to that. At Folsom Prison presents all the sides of Johnny Cash in one place—the songwriter, the interpreter, the activist and the man—and maybe that’s why it’s his most iconic album and why it’s a mainstay within the critical hive-mind.

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