Johnny Cash | Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison (Columbia/Legacy)

cd_cash-folsom.jpgBased purely on musical standards, Folsom Prison is a great album which captured Johnny Cash at his best.




Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison, a live album recorded on January 13, 1968, at Folsom State Prison in California, went to #1 on the country charts that year, and both revived Cash’s flagging career and firmly established his persona as "the man in black," who felt kinship with the world’s oppressed because he had seen his own hard times.

The title tune also went to #1 on the country charts, and won Cash a Grammy. But the significance of Folsom Prison surpasses its success as a country hit. It spent also 122 weeks on the pop charts as well, and was positively reviewed in Rolling Stone magazine and the Village Voice. The success of Folsom Prison and Cash’s 1969 prison album At San Quentin also led ABC television to offer him a prime-time variety show, where he became a popular culture superstar.

Based purely on musical standards, Folsom Prison is a great album which captured Johnny Cash at his best. But it’s also an important cultural document which captured the spirit of the times, when many young people involved in resisting civil wrongs such as segregation, poverty and the draft, and high-profile prisoners such as Philip Berrigan (who served time for his antiwar activities) popularized the idea that doing time in prison was the ultimate protest against an unjust system.

Much more was recorded at Folsom than was released on the 1968 album. Cash played two complete concerts that day, and several guest artists appeared as well, including Carl Perkins and the Statler Brothers. A more complete sense of the Folsom experience is now available through the recently released Legacy Edition, which presents both concerts (32 of the 51 tracks were previously unreleased) and also includes announcements by DJ Hugh Cherry and Cash which help recreate the energy of the live concerts and preserve some of the interactions between the performers and the Folsom prisoners.

Many of the songs on refer directly to prison, including "Green Green Grass of Home," "Long Black Veil," "25 Minutes to Go" and of course the title track and "Greystone Chapel" (written by Folsom inmate Glen Sherly). Others refer to hard times and poverty—"Dark as a Dungeon" and "Busted"—or are simply country and rockabilly classics, including "The Legend of John Henry’s Hammer," "Orange Blossom Special" (with Cash on harmonica) and "Blue Suede Shoes."

Cash is backed up by the Tennessee Three—Marshall Grant (bass), W.S. "Fluke Holland (drums) and Luther Perkins (guitar)—and sings duets with June Carter on "Jackson," "I Got a Woman," "Give My Love to Rose" and "Long-Legged Guitar Pickin’ Man." The Statler Brothers sing "This Ole House," "You Can’t Have Your Kate and Edith, Too," "How Great Thou Art" and "Flowers on the Wall," while Carl Perkins sings "Blue Suede Shoes" and "Matchbox," and plays guitar on Cash’s tracks as well.

For the record, Johnny Cash never served time in prison, and only once spent the night in jail. But he had his share of troubles with the law, mainly stemming from his well-publicized drug addiction in the 1960s. And perhaps more to the point, Cash grew up poor, as one of seven children who worked in the cotton fields from the age of five. He recognized, as is still the case, that holding up a gas station for $500 will get you harder time than embezzling a company for $5 million. Cash became a crusader for prison reform and sponsored Glen Sherley’s release on parole. Even the unhappy conclusion to the Sherley experience—Sherley worked successfully with Cash for a few years until his behavior became so erratic and threatening that he had to leave the show, and eventually he committed suicide—Cash remained an advocate for prison reform and a champion of the disenfranchised.

The liner notes include an essay by Cash biographer Michael Streissguth and brief notes by Johnny Cash and Steve Earle. The box set Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison: Legacy Edition includes a DVD as well as the two CDs reviewed here. I have not seen the DVD so I can only describe it from the promotional materials included with the CDs. The DVD contains a 90-minute documentary plus 40 minutes of bonus features. The documentary examines the significance of the Folsom concert in Cash’s career and in the context of American popular music, and includes footage shot within Folsom prison, interviews with Merle Haggard, Roseanne Cash, Marty Stuart and former inmates who were present at the concert, and previously unpublished photography by Jim Marshall. A | Sarah Boslaugh

RIYL: Walk the Line, Long Black Limousine (Ginny Hawker), The Best of the Statler Brothers, At San Quentin

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