At Folsom Prison: A Mini-Doc on Johnny Cash’s Historic & Career-Changing Concert

It was the oppo­site of super­star rock con­certs, or even a sweaty, dark stage like that at CBGB’s in New York. But the din­ing hall at Fol­som Prison was the set­ting for a con­cert that would give John­ny Cash, on the verge of a career col­lapse, a sec­ond chance on life. And it would become one of the unlike­li­est venues in the his­to­ry of coun­try music.

Noth­ing was the same after this unlike­li­est of turn­arounds. After the album record­ed at this gig, Cash would be hur­tled into super­star­dom. He’d get his own nation­al TV show. And instead of being a drug and alco­hol casu­al­ty, he’d take on the man­tel of elder states­man with a hint of dan­ger. No, he’d nev­er killed a man in Reno just to watch him die, but when he sang it in that long drawl, you could believe so. None of the orig­i­nal artists that played on Sun Records had a sec­ond act quite like Cash.

And that’s all down to the deci­sion to play a con­cert at California’s Fol­som Prison, in which he had set one of his most famous songs from 1953.

In Polyphonic’s nine minute mini-doc above on the mak­ing of this clas­sic album, he tries to piece togeth­er what makes the Fol­som Prison album so spe­cial.

You might not think of the album as a rad­i­cal piece of late ‘60s music sim­i­lar to The White Album or Beggar’s Ban­quet, but it is. For it was birthed with the help of pro­duc­er Bob John­ston, who had a try-any­thing atti­tude that was very much in the air in 1968. The record­ing is raw and very, very live sound­ing. The audi­ence of pris­on­ers is a part of the mix. Cash’s voice is sim­i­lar­ly raw and flubs and mis­takes were kept in. (But as the video points out, some of the audi­ence nois­es were edit­ed for greater impact, like a ‘whoop’ after Cash’s infa­mous “Reno” line.) June Carter’s sweet voice con­trasts with Cash’s, but there’s an air of ten­sion to the duets, as these men prob­a­bly haven’t seen a young woman in the flesh for a very long time.

There’s also the empa­thy of the entire project. Cash sings like he’s one of them, and his songs are of iso­la­tion and lone­li­ness. He even sings a song writ­ten by an inmate called “Grey­stone Chapel.” While so many acts at this time were strip­ping away artifice–think of Bob Dylan’s turn away from his psy­che­del­ic mid-‘60s height–Cash beat them all to it with unadorned hon­esty, humor, and in the mid­dle of a prison, a sense of joy.

This year marks the 50th anniver­sary of the album, and the racial make-up of Fol­som has changed–it’s gone from a major­i­ty white prison to one pop­u­lat­ed by African-Amer­i­cans, Lati­nos, and Asians.
And while coun­try music would not get the same recep­tion now as it did then, the biggest change is that pris­on­ers make the music them­selves. In a Los Ange­les Times arti­cle about the prison, “the musi­cians at Fol­som have formed hip-hop, hard rock/heavy met­al, Latin rock, alt-rock, smooth jazz and pro­gres­sive rock ensem­bles with­in Folsom’s walls.” One recent artist to vis­it and per­form was hip-hop musi­cian Com­mon.

But none of that would have hap­pened with­out Cash’s his­toric vis­it. As he told the Times’ Robert Hilburn about that moment, “I knew this was it. My chance to make up for all the times when I had messed up. I kept hop­ing my voice wouldn’t give out again. Then I sud­den­ly felt calm. I could see the men look­ing over at me. There was some­thing in their eyes that made me real­ize every­thing was going to be okay. I felt I had some­thing they need­ed.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

John­ny Cash Sings “Man in Black” for the First Time, 1971

John­ny Cash’s Short and Per­son­al To-Do List

Watch John­ny Cash’s Poignant Final Inter­view & His Last Per­for­mance: “Death, Where Is Thy Sting?” (2003)

Ted Mills is a free­lance writer on the arts who cur­rent­ly hosts the artist inter­view-based FunkZone Pod­cast and is the pro­duc­er of KCR­W’s Curi­ous Coast. You can also fol­low him on Twit­ter at @tedmills, read his oth­er arts writ­ing at and/or watch his films here.

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