When bad luck comes around, it comes around in deluge, leaving one thinking, `Things have just gotta start going my way.’ That must have been what Johnny Cash was thinking just before 1968 rolled in. The legendary Man in Black had been busted for amphetamine smuggling, was slipping further and further into drug use, been barred from the Grand Ole Opry, and had completely lost favor with Nashville and country music fans. Having had a distinctive style that wasn’t really country, nor folk, nor rock, but a little something from all three and a vocal delivery that has never been duplicated, Cash had nowhere to go but up. He merely had to find his audience.
He found that audience, strangely enough, in the inmates of Folsom Prison, a California penitentiary he sang about in 1957. Cash’s simple songs of love, murder, crime, defiance, loneliness, rebellion, sin and death would resonate deep within the men of Folsom Prison for the simple reason that Cash felt like one of them, and they knew that Cash’s words and emotions were real. The show that became the album was recorded in January of 1968, and little was Cash to know what was in store for him in that banner year.
For one, newfound friend June Carter assisted Johnny in his fight to go clean, she converted him to fundamentalist Christianity, they got married, had a hit record, and then unfortunately, maybe just to balance it out, he lost good friend and lead guitarist Luther Perkins in a fire. Perkins had been with Cash from the beginning, forming one half of the “Tennessee Two,” consisting of Perkins and bassist Marshall Grant. Shortly after, they became the “Tennessee Three” when drummer W.S. Holland became a regular member.
“Hello. I’m Johnny Cash.” This is how he began every show, with a simple hello and introduction, intoned the same way every time, and every time greeted with thunderous applause. The music and voice of Johnny Cash are unparalleled, and his songs will live on forever. Although the songs played on At Folsom Prison are slices of greatness, what really makes the album successful and transcendent are the inmates of Folsom Prison, whooping, hollering, and finding a little of themselves in Cash’s music. Cash’s candor with the prisoners is at once touching and unpretentious. One of his best moments is when he slips up while singing “Dark as the Dungeon,” tells the prisoners that they are recording, and then afterwards says that because of this he can’t say “hell or shit or anything like that….how does that grab you, Bob?”
Cash intersperses some of his `serious’ hits with his storytelling humorous genius in covering “Cocaine Blues,” Shel Silverstein’s “25 Minutes to Go,” a song counting down a prisoner’s time until he is hanged, “Dirty Old Egg-Suckin’ Dog,” and “Flushed From the Bathroom of Your Heart,” much to the delight of the entertainment starved inmates. One moment that comes crashing in, between songs, is a PA announcement calling off inmate numbers of those who have visits. You can hear floor phones ringing during some songs, and at one point Cash asks for a glass of water and is extremely wary of what a prison guard is actually bringing him, joking about the tin cup it’s in as well as the fact that it could have run off of Luther Perkins’ boots.
June Carter, soon to be June Carter Cash, joins Johnny in the songs “Jackson” and “Give My Love to Rose,” a song he later rerecorded for his famous American series, on American IV: The Man Comes Around.
Making this concert even more special is the fact that frequent backup vocalists The Statler Brothers appear, as well as the Carter Family and guitar legend Carl Perkins, no relation to Luther. Recently, Columbia released a version of the album in their “Legacy” series which includes three unreleased tracks from the show, and uncensors it, letting Cash make the aforementioned joke. The last song that Cash performs at Folsom Prison is called “Greystone Chapel,” and the reason that this song was important is that it was written by Glen Sherley, an inmate of Folsom at the time. In fact, the songs that resonated the most with the crowd, oddly enough, were the songs about prison life. “Folsom Prison Blues,” “Dark as the Dungeon,” “25 Minutes to Go,” “The Wall,” “I Got Stripes” and “Greystone Chapel” were all prison songs and were all met with wild cheers.
Johnny Cash wrote in his own hand in the liner notes, “Prisoners are the greatest audience that an entertainer can perform for. We bring them a ray of sunshine in their dungeon and they’re not ashamed to respond, and show their appreciation. Listen closely to this album and you can hear in the background the clanging of the doors, the shrill of the whistle, the shout of the men – even laughter from men who had forgotten how to laugh. But mostly you’ll feel the electricity and hear the single pulsation of two thousand heartbeats in men who had their hearts torn out, as well as their minds, their nervous systems and their souls. Hear the sounds of the men, the convicts all brothers of min – with the Folsom Prison Blues.”
The album At Folsom Prison became so popular and such an icon of not only country, but folk and rock music, that even The Simpsons poked fun at it. In an unforgettably funny scene, Krusty performs at Springfield Prison and sings,
“I slugged some jerk in Tahoe
They gave me one to three
My high-priced lawyer sprung me on a technicality
I’m just visiting Springfield Prison
I get to sleep at home tonight”
Folsom Prison itself is what makes this album legendary and unlike any other live album. Forget Central Park, the Hollywood Bowl, and Madison Square Garden. There was only one type of venue good enough for Johnny Cash, to not only connect with his audience, but also to revive his career, exposing the world beyond country music his talent. Cash followed up At Folsom Prison with another prison concert album, At San Quentin which featured the famous hit, “A Boy Named Sue.” The success of these two albums was only to be bested years later when Rick Rubin and the American Recording Company brought Johnny to a whole new generation.
God Bless Johnny Cash.
Similar Albums/ Albums Influenced:
Johnny Cash- At San Quentin
Hank Williams- Live at the Grand Ole Opry
Johnny Cash- American Recordings series