If it has something to do with music in the States of America – be it country, rock, gospel…pretty much anything short of opera – the legendary Johnny Cash has to be, if not in its Hall of Fame, then pretty damn close to it. One of only two people that is in both the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and the Country Music Hall of Fame (the other is Elvis Presley, although an argument could be made that there are three with Sun Records owner and producer Sam Phillips), Johnny Cash is without a doubt one of the icons of music in this country. But can you believe that there was a time when Cash was on the verge of being shunned by the music industry?
After making his name in country music and, alongside his wife June Carter and the Carter Family, to a lesser extent in gospel music, Cash was at a crossroads in 1968. Battling the demons of drug and alcohol abuse, his record label, Columbia Records, was very wary of what would come next out of the “Man in Black.” Cash had a controversial idea for what approach he wanted to take for his next record: a live recording at a state prison in California, from the man who in 1955 penned and sang the song “Folsom Prison Blues.”
The idea for this live album had been in Cash’s mind even before he wrote that famous song. Cash, while in the Air Force Security Service in 1953, saw a film called Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison. It was that film that inspired Cash to write about his views of what prison would be like. The results of that inspiration was “Folsom Prison Blues,” which became a staple of the Cash library along with “I Walk the Line,” and “Ring of Fire.”
While Cash thought that a live album at a prison would be an outstanding move, Columbia Records wasn’t as wild about the idea. It wasn’t until Cash was teamed with producer Bob Johnston from Columbia that someone from the label embraced the idea. It is rumored that Cash and Johnston contacted two prisons, Folsom State Prison and San Quentin State Prison, with Folsom winning out because they replied first.
The result, Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison, became one of the benchmarks of Cash’s career despite little investment from the label and even less promotion. Cash and Carter, along with the Tennessee Three (Cash’s backup band of Luther Perkins, Marshall Grant and W. S. Holland), Carl Perkins (no relation to Luther but an occasional member of the “Tennessee Three”), the Statler Brothers, Cash’s father Ray and Reverend Floyd Gressett (who counseled inmates at Folsom), journeyed to Folsom Prison for a day of rehearsals and a day of performing. After the rehearsals and back at the hotel for dinner, then California Governor Ronald Reagan heard that the entourage was in the building and came by to encourage the group and wish them well for the performance the next day.
On January 11, 1968, the group hit the stage at Folsom State Prison. There were two shows scheduled for the day, one at 9AM and one at 12:40PM, just in case there were any issues that arose from the first show. After performances by Perkins and the Statler Brothers, Cash took the stage and blew away the prisoners in attendance with a scintillating performance. Of course, he would lead off with “Folsom Prison Blues,” but he also mixed in other tales of woe and sorrow such as “Cocaine Blues,” “25 Minutes to Go (about being on death row),” “The Wall,” “Dark as a Dungeon,” and the Tennessee Three stretched their legs with a classic version of “Orange Blossom Special.”
When it was released in May 1968, Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison was hailed for Cash’s realism with the songs. Al Aronowitz of Life stated that Cash’s songs sounded like “someone who was…one of the people that the songs were about.” The emotional grip of the songs was emphasized and the audience – the inmates of Folsom Prison, whom the warden had been worried about possibly being unruly during the shows – were grateful for the performances and responded enthusiastically to seeing such acclaimed musicians considering where they were.
For Cash himself, the album marked a “rebirth” of sorts and, arguably, MADE him the legend that he would become. “(The album) was where things really got started for me again,” Cash would note in an interview with Rolling Stone. It would lead to a second “prison album,” Johnny Cash at San Quentin (1969), where a man by the name of Merle Haggard would hear him and vow to change his life so he could perform like Cash. Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison would also be the kickoff point for the remainder of Cash’s career, which ended sadly with his death in 2003.
The laurels that Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison has received are almost too numerous to mention. Along with being chosen by the Library of Congress for its National Recording Registry, the album has also been named one of the top 100 albums of all time by such outlets as Rolling Stone, Time, and Blender and was named the #3 country music album of all time by Country Music Television.
What makes Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison so special? First, it was a “live recording” in an era that wasn’t exactly embracing the format. Second, Cash’s career at that point was sputtering – some would say on life support – and his record label’s lack of support for the record could have spelled the end of his career. Finally, it was a stroke of genius to do such a record for such an audience, displaying to music fans that the people in this situation WERE actually people, people that deserved respect. It was a “liberal” idea for the time, breaking the tradition of country musicians being considered “conservative” (and something shown of late by another country music legend, Willie Nelson in his support of Democrat Beto O’Rourke in the current Texas Senatorial race).
The music world – ANY music world – was greatly enriched by Johnny Cash. But without Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison, it is conceivable that the “Man in Black” could have disappeared from the annals of music history.