Johnny Cash,
At Folsom Prison
(Sony, 1968; 1999)

I'm not a big fan of country music.

By that, I mean the stereotypical whiny, lost-my-girl-and-dog sort of song with a cry in the voice and a weeping guitar. I mean the glossy cowboys and cowgirls who never saw a cow in their lives. I mean the countrified pop stars who owe more to Britney Spears and Jessica Simpson than Emmylou Harris and Patsy Cline. I mean every single boot, scoot and boogie.

Johnny Cash is a whole 'nother story.

The late Mr. Cash was your basic, old-fashioned, working man's country-folk singer. His songs rang with hardship and merriment, as needed, and above all truth -- that deep, gravelly voice made you believe he was rotting away in prison, that he was slowly turning to coal in the belly of a mine, that he was walking the line and/or caught in a burning ring of fire, that he was hanged for murder and his secret mistress wept over his grave. There was something genuine about his music that rarely surfaced elsewhere. He was grittier, more fun, touching on dark subjects that seldom raised their heads. He was, in his way, a rebel, an outlaw, a punk rocker before his time.

Nowhere was that more true than at California's notorious Folsom Prison, where Johnny, his wife June Carter and his band performed for 2,000 men and their well-armed guards in January 1968. As a child, I wore out my cassette copy of the Folsom Prison recording. When I recently stumbled upon a copy on CD, I just couldn't resist.

It's all there, and more than two decades since I tossed the battered old recording away, I still knew most of the words. Johnny's asides to the inmates, his jokes and his occasional stumbles sounded like something I'd heard just last week.

You may notice that Johnny doesn't soft-pedal the realities of prison life for his audience. If you're in prison, it's hard, and chances are good you aren't getting out soon. If you try to escape, you'll die. If you're released, you might die before you make it home. If you're scheduled for hanging, the governor won't call.

It starts off with Johnny's own "Folsom Prison Blues," a song that surely won the hearts of every prisoner there. The prison theme dominates the album, from the original songs "Send a Picture of Mother" and "I Got Stripes" to covers of "The Wall," "Green Green Grass of Home" and a rowdy "Cocaine Blues." There's humor -- from Shel Silverstein's whimsical gallows song "25 Minutes to Go" to that "Dirty Old Egg-Suckin' Dog" -- and sorrow -- "I Still Miss Someone" and "Give My Love to Rose." Johnny's haunting renditions of "Dark as a Dungeon" and "Long Black Veil" have in particular stuck with me through the years.

The CD also has three tracks missing from my old cassette: "Busted," "Joe Bean" and "The Legend of John Henry's Hammer."

Perhaps most touching of all is "Greystone Chapel," penned by inmate Glen Sherley and performed for the first time for this recording. It's a spiritual song of hope in a place that has little, and the audience definitely was moved by the experience.

Johnny Cash At Folsom Prison is a live recording where the performer truly connects with his audience. For the span of these 19 tracks, he was one of them, and his words and music to them touches us all still today.

by Tom Knapp
4 November 2006

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