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.”
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 tedmills.com and/or watch his films here.