At Folsom Prison

I think everybody has probably pondered the question “What would it be like to be in prison?” at one point or another.  I know I have.  Actually, it’s been on my mind a lot lately…not because I plan on committing a crime.  But one of my former students did commit a crime last fall…a pretty heinous one actually…and I doubt he will ever see the world outside a prison cell ever again.  So, yeah, it’s something I’ve wondered about, and I’m pretty sure it’s wouldn’t be a pleasant experience.  Well, this album is hopefully as close as I will ever get to being on the inside, but it sure offers some incredible insight into prison life.  Most people probably know it was recorded live in front of an audience of inmates at Folsom State Prison in California, and of course one of Johnny Cash’s first hit songs was “Folsom Prison Blues”, but I didn’t realize until I listened to this that most of the songs on the record are about being in prison.  And because of this, there is this sort of conspiratorial bond between Cash and the audience that really drives the record. He makes off-color jokes and teases the warden and really gets the audience on his side.   As for the music, there is the gallows humor of “25 Minutes to Go”, the bad-boy strut of “Cocaine Blues”, the irony of “Joe Bean” (a bonus track on the CD edition), the resiliency of “I Got Stripes”, and the final moment of inspiration and triumph when he performs a song written by one of the inmates (a guy named Glen Sherley) called “Greystone Chapel”.  And of course “Folsom Prison Blues” leads off the show, a song which contains the most bad-ass line ever written in popular music: “I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die.”  Add in June Carter’s sexually charged vocals on “Jackson”, and you have a pretty amazing record that has aged incredibly well since it was recorded back in 1968.

I was never a huge Johnny Cash fan growing up.  Other than the occasional Kenny Rogers 8-track tape, we never really listened to much country music in my family.  Sure, I knew who Johnny Cash was…he was pretty famous, but I wasn’t interested in him or his music at all.  And it didn’t help that despite the Gear Head’s insistence that it was good music, I despised the pop-country revolution spearheaded by Garth Brooks and Dunn et al in the early 90s.  But then something happened in the mid-90s while I was in college…somebody (I think it was Lord Bacchus) played me Johnny Cash’s cover of Soundgarden’s “Rusty Cage” from the American II: Unchained album.  And I thought it was so cool that this legendary country western artist was trying to connect with my generation…and doing it well.  And then a few years later he covered Nine Inch Nail’s “Hurt” on the American IV: The Man Comes Around album, and I was blown away by how good it was.  And I realize that for Cash, he was pouring all his grief and anguish from the death of his beloved wife, June Carter Cash, into that song…but for me it was a reworking of a song that had gotten me through some pretty dark times in my life.  I connected with it, and it helped me to develop a deep respect for the Man in Black as well.

So after that I started picking up the American recordings, and I remember doing a tribute to him in my general music classes when he passed shortly thereafter. At one point I picked up Christmas With Johnny Cash because it is one of the few Christmas albums I’ve ever seen that has my favorite Christmas carol “I Heard the Bell on Christmas Day” on it.  And of course there was the biopic, Walk the Line,  back in 2005 which used the Folsom Prison concert to frame the story of Cash’s life (and even though Reese Witherspoon stole to spotlight in that movie, Joaquin Phoenix did a fine job portraying Cash).  But last summer I got to spend a week in Nashville with the Princess, and that’s when it all really started to come together in my head.  We went to the Johnny Cash Museum and we heard his songs played every night in the honky-tonks, and it made me realize that he truly was one of the greatest American singer-songwriters ever, regardless of genre.  There is something so strong about that vibrato-less baritone voice, the dalliance with both the light through gospel music and the darkness through prison songs, the redemption story of fighting drug addiction and actually not winding up dead like so many other musicians, and well, the fact that he managed to be relevant in six different decades.  You done good, Johnny, you done good.

I actually picked this album up at Ernest Tubb Record Shop on the outer-belt near the campground we were staying at while we were down in Nashville (there was a picture on the wall in the shop of two of the Princess’ relatives who were country-western artists back in the day).  I remember they had a bunch of copies with several different prices marked on them, and I got the cheapest one.  I think it was $6.99.  The CD edition has 3 tracks that were not on the original vinyl album.  Another Ernest Tubb store downtown on Broadway in the heart of the honky-tonk district had the 3 disc Legacy Edition, but it was too pricey and I wound up buying it later on Amazon.  What’s cool about the Legacy Edition is that it has both concerts that Johnny Cash played at Folsom Prison that day completely uncut, including the opening acts (Carl Perkins and the Statler Brothers).  All but two of the tracks for the actual album At Folsom Prison were taken from the first show, so the second show had been completely unreleased until recently (and it’s definitely not as good…Cash makes the same jokes, but they go flat, and his guitar goes out of tune several times).  It’s a cool piece of music history.

At Folsom Prison Legacy Edition


Other lists: “Folsom Prison Blues” is #163  on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.  Johnny Cash ranks #21 on the list of the 100 Greatest Singers and #31 on the list of the 100 Greatest Artists (Carl Perkins, who plays guitar with the Tennessee Three on this record is the #99 Greatest Artist).

My favorite track: “Folsom Prison Blues”

Honorable mention: “Cocaine Blues”

Quote: “When I was just a baby, my mama told me ‘Son, always be a good boy, don’t ever play with guns.’ But I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die.  When I hear that whistle blowin’, I hang my head and cry.”