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50 Years Behind Bars: How At Folsom Prison Revived an Icon and Set the Standard for the Live Recordi

Johnny Cash, At Folsom Prison

May 24, 2018 | by Ryan Bray

It’s easy to put our musical heroes up on pedestals. That’s where they belong, right? Bob Dylan helped a frustrated generation make sense of the ‘60s. Bands like The Replacements and The Smiths similarly acted as spokesmen for the lost, vulnerable, and disenfranchised. Through good times and bad, our heroes often provide the soundtrack to our lives. There’s a power to that, and that can lead us to believe they don’t exist on our level.

But that’s not true. The ability of our favorite artists to tap into our emotional core can only come from some understanding of the way we feel. The songs work because they’re lived-in. They’re born out of experience. We get so used to taking the things we need from our favorite musicians that it’s easy to forget that beneath all the lore and mythology, they are still one of us.

This holds true to the most outsized of pop music legends, even those as peerless as Johnny Cash. Even today, almost 15 years after his death, something about his presence, voice, and overall demeanor make him something more akin to a musical force of nature than simply a singer/songwriter. Cash’s songs — whether they be about love, God, hope, misery, longing, men behaving badly, or anything in between — are incredibly powerful. But they’re also relatable, especially to those who know a thing or two about life on the wrong side of right. It makes perfect sense then that the Man in Black’s greatest recorded moment came in front of a room full of people who most identified with his message.

At Folsom Prison was an attempt at reinventing the live album into something as daring and rule-breaking as the man who created it. Recorded before inmates at California’s Folsom State Prison in January 1968, it’s a performance that even today crackles with raw, nervous energy. There’s an innate danger to the record that gives what’s by itself a spirited set from Cash, Carl Perkins, June Carter, and the Tennessee Three an added shot of adrenaline. A false note or slip could have turned the whole joint into disarray, but the way Cash gets a room full convicts right in the palm of his hand remains today an expert display of steel nerve. At Folsom Prison is a master class in musical showmanship. Never has a performer owned a room, or one tougher, than Cash did at Folsom. Fifty years later, it’s still one of the most badass recordings in all of pop music, across any genre.

Despite the legend that’s long built up around Cash’s outlaw image, the singer never spent any real time in jail, save for a handful of overnight stays. But that isn’t to say that he didn’t wrestle with his own demons. Cash’s drug abuse had derailed his career by the late ’60s, his amphetamine addiction having put the chart-topping success of songs like “Ring of Fire” and “I Walk the Line” far in the rearview. The ramifications of his addiction issues were also personal. Drugs and alcohol brought his first marriage to a close not long before the Folsom concerts in 1966, and his struggles would continue on through his second marriage to June.

So while Cash might to not have been cut from the exact same cloth as his prisoner audience, he still knew what it was to struggle. That gave him a strong leg to stand on heading into Folsom, home to criminals of all shapes and sizes, from petty thieves and robbers to murders. Inmates saw Cash as a kindred spirit, and that ability to identify made the singer the guy for the job. How can you not relate to a song like “I Still Miss Someone” when your whole world lives on the opposite side of a concrete wall and a barbed-wire fence?

By 1967, Cash had gotten enough of a grip on his substance abuse to make his daring live experiment a reality. Folsom had been on the singer’s mind as far back as the early 1950s, when a documentary on the prison inspired him to pen “Folsom Prison Blues,” which was released through the legendary Sun Records imprint in 1953. But it took some shake ups at Cash’s home base of Columbia Records for his idea of a live jailhouse record to come to fruition. His longtime producers, Don Law and Frank Jones, took a backseat to Bob Johnston, whose reputation for coloring outside the lines and flaunting authority made him a perfect collaborator for Cash. A phone call to the folks at Folsom, and the gig was on.

Johnny Cash, At Folsom Prison album cover

It goes without saying that Folsom Prison is a tough room. But those who were there at the time attest to as much firsthand. Writing for The Telegraph in 2013, Robert Hilburn, one of the few members of the press allowed to attend, recalled how a guard was held hostage at the prison just weeks before the performance. “Officials told the inmates that if anyone left their chair during the concert they would stop the show, and there were guards with rifles on walkways above the stage,” he wrote.

Hilburn also recalled how Cash, typically the textbook picture of rugged masculinity, was nervous prior to the performance. His anxiety was due not so much to the setting, but because of the implications the show had for his then-flagging career. But in a shining example of how relatively mundane details can sometimes elevate great records, Cash laid the whole room to waste with the simplest utterance of a phrase.

“Hello, I’m Johnny Cash,” he announced in his booming baritone to an electrified room full of inmates and jailhouse screws. That’s really all it took. From there, Cash and his band ride the room’s boisterous energy like a tidal wave, ebbing and flowing alternately through electrified country rompers (“Jackson,” “25 Minutes To Go,” “Cocaine Blues”) and heart-tugging numbers (“Long Black Veil,” “Give My Love to Rose”) with ease. With everything on the line, Cash dug down deep for a career-defining performance. To this day when we talk about the singer’s lion heart or his no-bullshit tough-guy exterior, we’re talking about those two sets that make up At Folsom Prison.

The record was an outside-the-box smash, registering Cash his first Top 40 hit (“Folsom Prison Blues”) in four years. It also reached the top of Billboard’s Country Albums chart and crossed over to rise as high as 13 on the Pop Charts. Folsom’s success marked a big payoff on a gamble that Cash’s label, and even members of his own band, weren’t expecting. Columbia cautiously decided to limit press access to the show, uncertain of what kind of condition Cash might be in for the shows. Cash’s drummer, Flukes Holland, meanwhile told NPR earlier this year that he too had tempered expectations for the two shows at Folsom on January 13, 1968.

"I told everybody it won't sell enough to pay for the expense of going out with the recording equipment," Holland said. "That shows how wrong I was."

But it’s the moments of danger that live in the nooks and crannies of the record that make At Folsom Prison special. Cash egging on prison management over the facility’s “yella water,” or needling his own label by telling inmates they can’t say “hell or shit” on the recording, were pure dynamite in the water. His mischievousness wasn’t relegated to between-song banter, either. There’s the crowd’s reaction to his line about spitting in the sheriff’s eye on his cover of Shel Silverstein’s “25 Minutes to Go,” and the now-infamous salvo of “I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die” on the record’s titular lead track. Cash playfully took on the role of instigator, and the ripple effect touched burgeoning genres like country rock and others yet-to-come. When people make the case for Johnny Cash being among music’s original punk rockers, don’t laugh. There’s some truth to the theory.

Fifty years on, it’s hard to figure out who needed the Folsom performances more. Did Cash need the shot of life the shows gave his career, or did the prisoners need his voice and songs to steer them through the misery of confinement? More likely, both needed something from the other. Live performances, and by extension live records, live and die by their ability to connect the audience and the performer. By that measure, good luck topping Cash’s incendiary masterpiece.

Listen to At Folsom Prison (Full Album)

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