Today is the anniversary
of the two greatest concerts you
could never buy a ticket to. On January 14, 1968 Johnny Cash, the Tennessee Three, June Carter, Carl Perkins
and The Statler Brothers played two
shows at an unusual venue—California’s Folsom Prison.
were hastily arranged by Cash and
executives at Columbia Records for
the express purpose of making a live
recording in front of an audience of
inmates. The idea was rooted in Cash’s
1955 Sun Records single Folsom
Cash was inspired
to write the song while he was still in the Air Force in Germany. His unit was shown the 1951 film Inside
the Walls of Folsom Prison, a B-movie
starring Steve Cochran, a dark haired actor who bore more than a passing resemblance to Cash
himself. Inspired, Cash wrote the song, borrowing much of the melody and some of the words from Gordon Jenkins’s Crescent City
Blues on his long-form concept
album Seven Dreams. Jenkins’s contribution was unaccredited on the first single
release but included in later issues.
The song was
a minor hit for Cash but became part
of his standard stage show. It also gained a cult following among inmates, who frequently wrote to the star and
asked for him to play at their institutions.
Cash made a point of replying—or making sure his staff replied—to
all the prison inquiries and did begin doing occasional prison shows. The first was
at Huntsville State Prison in Alabama in 1957.
career progressed he began to cultivate a
persona as an outsider, a rebel, a potentially dangerous man. His songs and prison performances created a wide-spread impression that he had been
in prison himself—a notion he did very
little to discourage. Indeed, like his identification with the struggle of Native Americans caused him to claim Cherokee blood, this image became so firmly rooted in his mind that he began to more than half believe it himself.
Cash had spent about three nights in
jail, all in drug related incidents. One case was for trespassing to pick flowers in a Starksville, Mississippi park in 1965 while stoned. He would later sing about that on a recording made later at
In 1969 Cash
had hit bottom in a long struggle
with pills—amphetamines and downers—as
well as alcohol that had damaged his career and caused
the end of his first marriage. After an epiphany
deep in a Tennessee cave, he became
determined to shake addiction. With the help of his touring partner and love
interest June Carter and her mother, the legendary Maybelle Carter, the singer went cold turkey on pills during an excruciating week. He would stay
sober for the next seven years but would suffer periodic relapses the rest of his life.
To rejuvenate his career, Cash wanted to
follow up his deeply personal Bitter Tears, his 1964 album of songs on the plight of
Native Americans and his 1965 double LP Ballads of the True West, with a live recording at a
prison. Columbia executives, then down on
Cash for diminished record sales and
erratic behavior during the worst
period of his addiction, flatly refused. But when the country music division
of the label underwent change, Cash’s new producer Bob Johnston was enthusiastic.
Phone calls were made
offering shows to official at both Folsom and San Quentin. Folsom agreed first and the concerts were
Shows were presented to inmates at 9:30 am and again at 12:00 so that engineers would have two takes on most numbers. The play
lists also varied slightly to
provide more song options for the
planned album. Carl Perkins opened the
show with his Sun Records classic Blue
Suede Shoes and the Statler Brothers did their huge hit Flowers on the Wall before Cash
took the stage.
An announcer instructed the
prisoners not to cheer Cash until he got on stage and
opened with his signature “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash.” Both shows opened with Folsom Prison Blues
and a set of prison related songs that included The Green, Green Grass of Home, and the comic execution
song 25 Minutes to Go. June Carter, to whom Cash would propose marriage on a stage of a London Ontario concert just a little
over a month later, joined him on stage for duets. Among the other songs
that Cash performed at one or both of the shows were The Orange Blossom Special, Long Black Veil, I
Still Miss Someone, Stripes,
and Cocaine Blues.
It took for months of production
to ready the resulting album Johnny
Cash At Folsom Prison. Of 16
cuts on the album, 14 came from the first show when the musicians were
fresher. The cheering heard on Folsom Prison Blues when the line “shot a
man in Reno” was added in postproduction because the inmates were
careful not to cheer mentions of lawbreaking
for fear of reprisals from the guards.
Columbia, which was trying to concentrate
on its rock and pop catalogue did not heavily
promote the record when it was released, but the album got a boost when the new version of Folsom
Prison Blues quickly shot to the top of the Country music
charts and was climbing the pop
charts. It suffered a setback when many radio stations pulled the
song for its reference to murder in the wake of the assassination of Bobby
Kennedy in April.
The album was greeted with unanimous
rave reviews in both the country music and mainstream press. Al Aronowitz in Life summed of the sentiment of
most critics that Cash sang like “someone who has grown up believing he is one
of the people that these songs are about.”
was a #1 Country hit and rose to 13 on Billboard’s Pop Album chart in a year dominated by the Beatles
and the emergence of American psychedelic rock. It was certified as a Gold Record for half a million copies shipped by August. On the strength of the record’s success and cross-over appeal, ABC
Television gave Cash his own prime
time variety show, destined to be a legendary
showcase not only for the star but for a who’s who of rising folk,
country, pop, and rock and roll acts.
album is generally regarded as the greatest
country music record of all time. Re-released
as a CD in 1999 with three additional tracks from the concerts, it
scored again, this time going Triple
Platinum for sales of over three million copies. In 2008, Columbia and Legacy Records re-issued At Folsom Prison as a two CD, one DVD
set with both concerts uncut and remastered, including the performances
by Perkins, the Statler Brothers, and June Carter. The DVD contained both original footage
and interviews with Cash, Carter and
others involved in the project.
Almost makes you wish that you were a California felon lucky enough to be in the original audience.