REMEMBERING 1968: JOHNNY CASH at FOLSOM PRISON

(If any one musician bridged the gap between rock and roll and country and western, it was Johnny Cash.  His pure outlaw irreverence and disregard for “the man” was sweet music to the ears of most rock music fans, and to see him up there howling like an outlaw angel standing up for every little guy ever to be slapped by the cruelty of this world, was more than enough to crown him King of country music.  This guy did it ALL, and took fucking names.  Here are some fun bits of info about one of his most famous concerts, and a moment in pop culture history where we all knew Johnny Cash was a man for the people; all people. – Fats.) 

At Folsom Prison is a live album and 27th overall album by Johnny Cash, released on Columbia Records in May 1968. Since his 1955 song “Folsom Prison Blues”, Cash had been interested in performing at a prison. His idea was put on hold until 1967, when personnel changes at Columbia Records put Bob Johnston in charge of producing Cash’s material. Cash had recently controlled his drug abuse problems, and was looking to turn his career around after several years of limited commercial success. Backed with June Carter, Carl Perkins and the Tennessee Three, Cash performed two shows at Folsom State Prison in California on January 13, 1968. The resulting album consisted of fifteen tracks from the first show and two tracks from the second.

Despite little initial investment by Columbia, the album was a hit in the United States, reaching number one on the country charts and the top 15 of the national album chart. The lead single from the album, a live version of “Folsom Prison Blues”, was a top 40 hit, Cash’s first since 1964’s “Understand Your Man”. At Folsom Prison received good reviews upon its release and the ensuing popularity revitalized Cash’s career, leading to the release of a second prison album, At San Quentin. The album was re-released with additional tracks in 1999 and as a three-disc set in 2008. It was certified three times Platinum on March 27, 2003 by the Recording Industry Association of America for US sales exceeding three million.

zCbbJu7Johnny Cash first took interest in Folsom State Prison while serving in the United States Air Force Security Service. In 1953, his unit watched Crane Wilbur’s film Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison. The movie inspired Cash to write a song that reflected his perception of prison life. The result was “Folsom Prison Blues”, Cash’s second single on Sun Records. After its release, the song became popular among inmates, who would sometimes write to Cash, requesting him to perform at their prisons.  Cash’s first prison performance was at Huntsville State Prison in 1957. Satisfied by the favorable reception of the concert, he performed at several other prisons in the years leading up to the Folsom performance in 1968.

A few years after attaining commercial success from songs such as “I Walk the Line”, “Understand Your Man”, and “Ring of Fire”, Cash’s popularity waned. This was due in no small part to his increasing dependence on drugs. In 1967, Cash sought help for his escalating drug problems; by the end of the year, his drug use decreased and he sought to turn his career around. Concurrently, the country portion of Columbia Records underwent major personnel changes. Frank Jones and Don Law, who had produced several of Cash’s albums, were ousted in favor of Bob Johnston, who was known for his erratic behavior and willingness to disagree with studio executives. Cash saw this as an opportunity to pitch his idea of recording a live album at a prison; Johnston enthusiastically supported the concept. Johnston called San Quentin State Prison and Folsom, and Folsom was the first to respond.

On January 10, 1968, Cash and June Carter checked into the El Rancho Motel in Sacramento, California. They were later accompanied by the Tennessee Three, Carl Perkins, The Statler Brothers, Johnny’s father Ray Cash and producer Johnston. The performers rehearsed for two days, an uncommon occurrence for them, sometimes with two or more songs being rehearsed concurrently by various combinations of the musicians. A fashion show taking place in an adjacent ballroom provided an unneeded distraction, and during the rehearsal sessions on January 12, California governor Ronald Reagan, who was at the hotel for an after-dinner speech, visited the band and offered his encouragement. One of the foci of the sessions was to learn “Greystone Chapel”, a song written by inmate Glen Sherley. Sherley recorded a version of the song, which he passed on to Rev. Floyd Gressett, a Ventura, CA pastor who regularly visited inmates at Folsom, via the prison’s recreation director. On January 13, the group traveled to Folsom, meeting up with Los Angeles Times writer Robert Hilburn and Columbia photographer Jim Marshall, who were paid to document the album for the liner notes.

_65422670_624_2johnnycash_rexfeaturesCash decided to hold two performances on January 13, one at 9:40 AM and one at 12:40 PM, in case the first performance was unsatisfactory. After an introduction by MC Hugh Cherry, who encouraged the prisoners to “respond” to Cash’s performance, Carl Perkins took the stage. Perkins performed his hit song “Blue Suede Shoes”. Following this song, The Statler Brothers sang their hit “Flowers on the Wall” and the country standard “This Old House”. Cherry again took the stage and instructed the inmates not to cheer for Cash until he introduced himself; they obliged. Cash opened both shows with a rendition of “Folsom Prison Blues” and the concerts contained many songs about prison, including “The Wall”, “Green, Green Grass of Home”, and the gallows humor tune “25 Minutes to Go”. The singer also included other songs of despair, such as the Merle Travis song “Dark as a Dungeon”. Following “Orange Blossom Special”, Cash included a few “slow, ballad-type songs”, including “Send a Picture of Mother” and “The Long Black Veil”, and then followed with three novelty songs from his album Everybody Loves A Nut, “Dirty Old Egg-Sucking Dog”, “Flushed from the Bathroom of Your Heart”, and “Joe Bean”. June Carter joined Cash on stage to perform a pair of duets. After a seven-minute version of a song from his “Blood, Sweat and Tears” album, “The Legend of John Henry’s Hammer”, Cash took a break and Carter recited a poem. Cash ended both concerts with Sherley’s “Greystone Chapel”. The second concert was not as fruitful as the first; the musicians were fatigued from the earlier show. Only two songs from the second concert, “Give My Love to Rose” and “I Got Stripes,” made it onto the LP release.

The success of At Folsom Prison revitalized Cash’s career; according to Cash, “that’s where things really got started for me again”. Sun Records re-dubbed Cash’s previous B-side “Get Rhythm” with applause similar to Folsom’s, and it became successful enough to enter the Hot 100. Cash returned to the prison scene in 1969 when he recorded At San Quentin at San Quentin State Prison. At San Quentin became Cash’s first album to hit number one on the Pop chart and produced the number two hit “A Boy Named Sue”. The ensuing popularity from the Folsom concert also prompted ABC to give Cash his own television show.

jcashThe album was re-released on October 19, 1999 with three extra tracks excluded from the original LP: “Busted”, “Joe Bean”, and “The Legend of John Henry’s Hammer”. Stephen Thomas Erlewine of Allmusic praised the new version, calling it “the ideal blend of mythmaking and gritty reality.” On May 27, 2003, At Folsom Prison was certified triple platinum by the RIAA for shipping over three million units. Since its release, it has been acknowledged as one of the greatest albums of all time by several sources. In 2003, the album was ranked number 88 on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 greatest albums of all time. Also that year, it was one of 50 recordings chosen by the Library of Congress to be added to the National Recording Registry. Country Music Television named it the third greatest album in country music in 2006. Blender listed the album as the 63rd greatest American album of all time and as one of the “500 CDs You Must Own”. In 2006, Time listed it among the 100 greatest albums of all time.

In 2008, Columbia and Legacy Records re-issued At Folsom Prison as a two CD, one DVD set. This so-called “Legacy Edition” contained both concerts uncut and remastered. The included DVD, produced by Bestor Cram and Michael Streissguth of Northern Light Productions, featured pictures and interviews relevant to the concert. Pitchfork Media lauded the collection, claiming that it had “the force of empathic endeavors, as if he were doing penance for his notorious bad habits.” Christian Hoard wrote for Rolling Stone that the Legacy edition “makes for an excellent historical document, highlighting Cash’s rapport with prison folk.”