At Folsom PrisonAt Folsom Prison is both the easiest and hardest of Johnny Cash’s albums to review. Easy because if you only own one Cash album, it’s this one. In fact, if you only own one country album, or perhaps even only one live album, this is the one. Simply put, this record encapsulates everything there is to know about Cash – the rebel, the country boy, the lover, the loser, the entertainer and the religious devotee. The performances are raw and visceral, yet tender and personal at the same time. From start to finish, the album is bursting with electricity.

The hard part comes in getting to what makes this album so special. From start to finish, there’s not a dull track. Recorded live in California’s infamous Folsom Prison, Johnny actually played two sets that day, one in the morning, the other around lunch time. Here Cash is backed by his regular touring entourage: The Tennessee Three (Marshall Grant, WS Holland and Luther Perkins), his girlfriend (and soon to be fiancée, then wife) June Carter, the Statler Brothers. Years on the road with this group meant they were comfortable playing together even if it was first thing in the morning in front of a group of convicts. The recent of addition Carl “Blue Suede Shoes” Perkins on guitar alongside Luther (unrelated) meant some hot licks could be expected on top of the Three’s steadfast boom-chicka-boom backing.

The first set features just Johnny and the Tennessee Three. Not surprisingly, they come blazing out of the gate with Cash’s early hit, Folsom Prison Blues, and here it bristles and cracks with violence appropriate for a song about shooting a man just to watch him die. In an instant, they have spun around for a couple of ballads – Dark as the Dungeon which applies equally to prisoners as it does to coal moaners, and the soft longing of I Still Miss Someone – which are played with such emotion that it’s hard to imagine even this rough-and-tumble audience losing attention for even a moment. He then rips into Cocaine Blues which is so fiery it makes his 1960 studio recording (the censored Transfusion Blues) entirely irrelevant, and then has the gall to sing the brutally dark-humoured gallows tale, 25 Minutes to Go, to a room full of convicts. They don’t seem to mind, in fact, they absolutely love it, cheering at every spare moment in the music. Only then do they take a moment’s rest, long enough for Johnny to joke about playing the “harmoni-cai” for their 1965 hit Orange Blossom Special. Again, they wipe the floor with the studio version, Holland’s drums whip-cracking like a runaway train.

From there, the band is dismissed and Johnny plays a few tunes on his acoustic guitar. The heartbreak is palpable in the Long Black Veil (another gallows tune!), and Send a Picture of Mother (another prison tune!), and yet it seems entirely natural for him to crack jokes about the prison’s drinking water. Cash had a magical ability to bridge the reverent and the ridiculous, and his charm very quickly wins the audience over. The acoustic set continues with the prison escape tale The Wall, and the hilarious Dirty Old Egg-Sucking Dog and the then-unreleased Flushed From the Bathroom of Your Heart. By now, the audience is eating out of Cash’s hand!

The band returns for a duet with June, the tempestuous cheatin’ tune, Jackson. Johnny and June had an incredible rapport on stage and you can imagine how the prisoners would react to such a beautiful, feisty woman teasing Johnny mere feet from them!

He then begins rounding third base. First it’s the tender Give My Love to Rose, followed by the upbeat hit prison lament, I Got Stripes. Incredibly, stripped of the big studio echo, the Statler Brothers actually sound good behind Cash. The concert then ends on a meditative note, first with the reminiscent Green, Green Grass of Home, and finally with a song Cash wrote by putting to words a lyric written by one of the prisoners: Greystone Chapel. Having gone through an epiphany of his own only a year earlier, following a near suicide, he sings a convict’s revelation: “Inside the walls of prison my body may be/but the Lord has set my soul free.” On this last track, everyone’s clapping, the band is singing, and Carl’s playing some rocking lead, turning a prison cafeteria into a religious revival if only for a few, fleeting minutes. With a brief instrumental and some closing announcements from the Warden, the prisoners are sent back to their cells, and the whole thing is forgotten. Except that it’s not. Newly sober and reinvigorated, Johnny had the foresight to bring in the adventuresome Bob Johnston to record this concert and make sure it would last forever. Thank God he did.

5+/5

Other Songs from the Era:

  • 1999 Legacy Edition – In 1999, the album was re-released with several bonus tracks. These include a great version of Busted, an acoustic Joe Bean, a full-band version of John Henry’s Hammer played by request, plus some salty dialogue inappropriate for a 1968 release. These only make a perfect album better.
  • 2008 Legacy Box Set – In 2008, the album was released again as a two-disc set revealing the bigger picture behind the concert. What Sony has provided are both the morning and noon-hour sets in their entirety, and they play quite differently from the edited live album. Instead of a straight Cash concert, we get the full travelling roadshow feel of his performances. The first concert opens with Carl Perkins playing Blue Suede Shoes, followed by a Statler Brothers number. The crowd suitably warmed up, Cash comes out for a 19-song set, most of which was used for the album. Left out is a great version of Hank Snow’s “I’m Here to Get My Baby Out of Jail”, in which Cash flubs the last verse, and a second duet with June, their silly take on Ray Charles’ I Got a Woman (in which June flubs a verse). We’re also given “June’s Poem” which highlights what an entertainer she was in her own right. The second set finds Cash a little more tired. He trims his set to 16 tunes, looking to his entourage to fill out the hour. Carl plays three tunes – this time adding The Old Spinning Wheel and Matchbox – as do the Statlers, including their big hit Flowers on the Wall. Johnny adds Give My Love to Rose and I Got Stripes (both of which were included on the original album, but not the first set), and drops several ballads: Long Black Veil, Send a Picture, The Wall. The songs they messed up the first time around are cut, too. June gets another moment in the sun, though, this time with Long Legged Guitar Pickin’ Man – her growls and Carl’s blistering leads are absolute gold. Why it was left off the 1999 release, I can’t imagine! (Check out their similar 1969 performance caught on film at Cummins Prison on YouTube.) To round it out, they take two stabs at the new Greystone Chapel to ensure they have a version fit for the record, but it was the first set’s take that was used in the end anyways. The Box Set is just as it should be for completists: complete from start to finish. Casual listeners will prefer one of the single-disc versions, though.
  • The Folk Singer – The live version of Folsom Prison Blues was released as a single with this new track as a b-side. It’s unlike anything else Cash had ever recorded, sounding more like a San Francisco protest song, portraying the folk singer as a modern prophet. It’s interesting, but not essential. Available on Singles, Plus.

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