Johnny Cash – At Folsom Prison

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist

I listen to a smattering of country-adjacent music, but – it should probably not even need to be explained – I do not listen to modern country at all. I have some small interest in the outlaw country of the ‘70s:  Kris Kristofferson, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson. I don’t feel strongly about Johnny Cash. He’s fine; I watched Walk the Line. That was okay, too. He only wrote a small number of the songs he performs on this album. I should note that his cover of Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt” does nothing for me.

What I Think of This Album

This album resurrected Cash’s career. He had performed at prisons before – the first time in 1957, over a decade before this concert – but his career had waned as his drug problem worsened. His discipline in and out of the studio was poor, and his band apparently encouraged the idea of playing at Folsom because it didn’t involve working up any new songs (and it would also force Cash to rehearse).

With Bob Johnston (Dylan, Simon & Garfunkel) newly installed as staff producer at Columbia, Cash, backing band the Tennessee Three (bassist Marshall Grant, drummer W.S. Holland, and guitarist Luther Perkins), backing vocalists the Statler Brothers, and June Carter traveled to California to rehearse before the prison shows. They performed two shows at Folsom on January 13, 1968 – one in the morning and one around noon.

Los Angeles radio DJ Hugh Cherry was the emcee, and he directed the prisoners to not cheer when Cash took the stage but to wait until he introduced himself. It was a brilliant move. The recording begins with the classic “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash,” and then a gigantic eruption of cheers. From that point forward, the dynamic between Cash and the 2,000 prisoners energized the recording. Cash’s respect and compassion for the audience was evident, and they clearly appreciated his efforts.

The setlist consists of three types of songs:  ballads, novelty songs, and the more energetic numbers. Many of the songs are prison-themed, of course, including one written by a a prisoner then at Folsom, Glen Sherley. Sherley had gotten a recording of “Greystone Chapel” to Cash through the prison pastor, and arrangements were made to have Sherley, who did not know the song would be performed, sit in the front row for the concert.

The highlights include great versions of “Folsom Prison Blues”; “Cocaine Blues”; “Stripes”; “Orange Blossom Special” (with Cash going to town on two harmonicas (not at the same time)); “I Still Miss Someone”; and “Greeen, Green Grass of Home.” Also noteworthy is the darkly comic “25 Minutes to Go,” written by Shel Silverstein. And the duets with June Carter are excellent:  “Jackson” is electrifying, and “Give My Love to Rose” is touching.

The original album had 16 songs, all but two from the morning show. I have the 1999 reissue, expanded to 19 tracks and with liner notes from Steve Earle.

Potpourri:  The album has sold over 3 million copies in the U.S. Glen Sherley was eventually released and, while he made a stab at a career in music, he struggled with life on the outside (members of the Tennessee Three reported that Sherley spoke openly of murdering them) and, after shooting someone, committed suicide in 1978. June Carter and Johnny got married a couple of months after the recording. The “Folsom Prison Blues” single was edited (to remove the key line “I shot a man in Reno / Just to watch him die”) and re-released after the assassination of Robert Kennedy; it became a number 1 hit on the country charts. Cash had written the song in 1953 and originally recorded it in 1955. Luther Perkins died several months after the recording, having fallen asleep in his living room with a lit cigarette.

The Best Thing About This Album

“Stripes” is a song I used to sing to my daughter when she was an infant.

Release Date

May, 1968 (original); October, 1999 (reissue)

The Cover Art

The close-up of a sweaty Cash mid-performance, by photographer Jim Marshall, is a great shot. The font is pretty good, too.

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