[12 October 2008]
It has been called “the single most important day in the career” of Johnny Cash. The date was January 13, 1968, a year that will forever go down in infamy in American history on account of the shocking assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, not to mention the infamous Tet Offensive, which plunged the United States neck-deep into one of the most unpopular wars the world had ever seen. The Tet Offensive went down mere days after this benchmark date in the life of the Man in Black.
January 13, 1968 was the day Cash stepped through the gates of the notorious Northern California maximum security prison at Folsom—flanked by his ever-present entourage of his then-fiancee June Carter, Carl Perkins, the Statler Brothers, and his longtime backing band the Tennessee Three, as well as a posse of suits from Columbia Records, including legendary house producer Bob Johnston—to perform before a mess hall of inmates. There were two performances that day, one at 9:40 am and the other around lunchtime. Both shows were recorded by Johnston and his crew, although the first show was exclusively used for the official record, after Johnston felt that Cash didn’t quite deliver with the same fire the second time around. But now, for the first time, both sets have been made available as part of this beautiful Legacy Edition, along with an informative DVD with a documentary on Cash’s trip to Folsom, featuring interviews with Roseanne Cash, Merle Haggard, Marty Stuart, and several former inmates who attended the iconic concert.
At Folsom Prison was the album that turned many people on to Johnny Cash, especially those who were not previously big country music fans. That is because it is the quintessential Cash album, even 40 years after the fact. Very, very few live albums released over the course of pop history have been able to capture the emotional connection between artist and audience quite like At Folsom Prison. This is because Cash had lived the caged life, just like the men sitting before him. And while he may or may not have exactly condoned the behavior for which these inmates had landed themselves in Folsom, he certainly empathized with them on a level few artists of his caliber had done before this recording.
Many of the songs on At Folsom Prison spoke to that audience on a myriad of levels in regard to the trials and tribulations of prison life on that day. Cash explores a vast myriad of notions and emotions in reference to living behind the cold iron bars of the American penitentiary system. He performs songs illustrating the committing of the crimes that got them there, including the controversial “Cocaine Blues”, featuring the unforgettable line “I can’t forget the day I shot that bad bitch down”, which he said with more conviction than 50 Cent could ever muster—and which was edited out of James Mangold’s Walk the Line by scared studio execs. He also delivers, of course, the immortal “Folsom Prison Blues”, so poignant in its performance at the actual institution.
You have songs communicating the fear and anxiety that sets in once you’re locked in, illustrated in his renditions of Shel Silverstein’s death row send-up “25 Minutes to Go”, Cash’s own “I Got Stripes”, and Merle Travis’ brooding “Dark As a Dungeon”, which is theoretically a song about coal miners, but is equally testimonial about the claustrophobia of prison life. And, perhaps most resonantly, there are also songs of redemption of sin, including “I Still Miss Someone”, “Green, Green Grass of Home”, and the beautiful, solemn “Greystone Chapel”, a song written by Folsom Prison inmate Glenn Sherley and passed onto Cash by a reverend who worked with Folsom inmates after he served as a pastor at Cash’s church in Ventura, California.
Sure, Cash performed songs at Folsom that had nothing to do with prison, resounding just as effectively as the prison fare with the crowd, particularly some killer covers of Ray Charles’ “I Got a Woman”, sung with June, and the railroad standard “The Legend of John Henry’s Hammer”, which Cash stretched out to seven minutes of intriguing narrative, in addition to such Man in Black classics as “Orange Blossom Special” and “Jackson”. (“I Walk the Line” and “Ring of Fire” were conspicuous in their absence from both set lists.) And one cannot forget the great performances of the opening acts, Carl Perkins and the Statler Brothers, included uncut in this Legacy edition.
Sure, some may cite Cash’s 1969 followup, Live at San Quentin, as his true prison record masterpiece. Although these performances were far from flawless, it’s the raw honesty in between the lines, coupled with an unflinching love and support for those caged men for whom he sung on that day inside the walls of the prison whose name is forever tagged with his first hit record, that makes At Folsom Prison far and away the more important of the two.
“Dig in, join in, share in the joy with the men who only had a couple of hours in months, maybe years time,” Cash proclaimed in the liner notes to this outstanding Legacy edition, originally penned for At Folsom Prison’s expanded reissue from 1999. “There’s some stuff in here that I’m proud of…”
And, as many longtime fans of the Man in Black can attest, that pride can be heard today as clearly as it had inside that cafeteria on January 13, 1968.