[Today: Johnny Cash goes behind bars…]
By the year nineteen hundred and sixty-eight, Johnny Cash had been pestering Columbia Records for more than six years to let him release a live album recorded in a prison setting. Cash had already played a number of penitentiaries, including Folsom Prison in 1966, and the experience gave him confidence that the atmosphere would lend itself to an excellent live album. But Columbia wasn’t having it, and the idea was a non-starter until Cash started working with maverick producer Bob Johnston, who’d previously produced Bob Dylan’s Blonde On Blonde. Johnston instantly recognized the merit of such an enterprise, and made it happen by simply picking up the phone and calling Folsom and San Quentin to see if they’d be interested (Folsom called back first).
Cash’s difficulty in convincing Columbia to let him record a prison album only underscores how low his career had fallen at that point. While not exactly washed up, he was four years removed from his last Top 40 hit, and his label could be forgiven for assuming that as the 60s bloomed into their full psychedelic splendor, Johnny Cash was a man of the past, little more than an oldies act (it wouldn’t be the last time The Man In Black would overcome that particular misperception). At Folsom Prison would revive his career and cement his legend.
On the cold, grey morning of Janurary 13th, 1968, Cash entered the gates at Folsom with June Carter, Carl Perkins, the Statler Brothers, his band the Tennesse Three (guitarist Luther Perkins, upright bassist Marshall Grant and drummer W.S. Holland) and an entourage that included producer Johnston and photographer Jim Marshall. The group was tense and humorless on entry, and Marshall’s photographs show Cash nervously eyeing the walls of Folsom liked a caged animal. But once they got to the rehearsal area off the main cafeteria, their mood lightened considerably. They were scheduled to play two shows that day (9:40am and 12:40pm) as insurance against an awkward recording process and/or a sluggish performance.
Carl Perkins and the Statlers each played a few songs to warm up the crowd, before MC Hugh Cherry stepped to the mic and primed the prisoners for the show, urging them to “respond” to Cash’s performance and asking them to wait until he introduced himself before letting loose with cheers. And so At Folsom Prison opens with a moment of silence before Cash uncorks his standard “Hello I’m Johnny Cash” intro, and an eruption of cheers practically blows the roof off the joint. Luther Perkins plays the first few notes of ‘Folsom Prison Blues’ and we’re off on perhaps the most exciting concert performance ever captured on tape.
Cash loaded his set with songs that touched on gallows and alibis, sheriffs and district courts, trials and juries, dark dungeons and the green, green grass of home. In the wake of the massive success of At Folsom Prison, it’s taken as an obvious decision, but Cash threatened overwhelming his audience with concerns and subjects they were all too familiar with. Instead, he fed off their energy and vice-versa, creating an electric synergy that jumps menacingly from the grooves even 40 years later. In 1999 he reflected on his state of mind in Folsom that day: “Let it blow. We are in the timeless now. There is no calendar inside the cafeteria today.”
Fifteen of the album’s 17 songs came from the early show – Cash was on fire that morning, radiating outlaw cool and throwing off sparks with every quip and stray curse word. Author Michael Streissguth compared his performance to a runaway freight train, speeding out of control without ever leaving the tracks. Cash was certainly one of the most charismatic performers to ever set foot on stage – put him in front of a delirious and potentially dangerous audience on one of his best days, and you’ve got a recording for the ages. If you want to hear how thrilling live music can be, and find out what happens when a legendary performer is driven ever higher, until he reaches something close to the zeitgeist, pick up a copy of At Folsom Prison.
Listen: Folsom Prison Blues
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