A large part of Johnny Cash’s musical identity was established, of all places, in prison. Although the singer himself stayed on the right side of the law (for the most part), he felt a certain kinship with the prison population, full of wayward souls and hard-luck stories. The legend’s first jailhouse album, At Folsom Prison, speaks to this relationship, and is brimming with the boisterous enthusiasm of a crowd of convicts who felt a commonality and connection with Cash and his wicked, witty songs of sinful indulgence and its consequence.
By the late sixties, Cash had been finding limited space for his songs on country radio, but the album (a risk that Columbia Records feared for him to take) revitalized his career. Recorded on January 13, 1968 at Folsom State Prison in Folsom, California, Cash’s live release, also featured his wife, June Carter Cash and friend Carl Perkins, along with Cash’s terrific touring band. It was ultimately a milestone that showcased all the great subjects of country music. At Folsom Prison is all loneliness and loss, religion and redemption and, of course, the crimes of passion and anger that befell the inmates of the famous jailhouse.
The centerpiece, “Folsom Prison Blues,” is a perfect reflection of the dark, depressing nature that permeates throughout the album. It was the original inspiration for Cash to make a complete live recording, and the track crackles with a crazy candor. The song, first released in 1955, is the classic train song, restless in rhythm and tone, as “time keeps draggin’ on” and the narrator is tortured by the success of other’s dreams and the failure of his own. The narrator’s apathy ran high the night he shot a man in Reno, an action taken “just to watch him die,” and his faith and freedom dies right there with the cold, lifeless body of a stranger. It’s a work of staggering depth and despair.
Cash shows off considerable attitude on the other prison-themed songs, including “Cocaine Blues,” “25 Minutes to Go” (an eerie countdown to a world-weary man‘s execution) and “I Got Stripes.” The final song, “Greystone Chapel,” was written by an inmate, Glen Sherley. A prison preacher gave Cash an audio tape of Sherley’s rendition of the song, and Cash decided to include his own take on the redemption tune. It lends a somber tone to the final moments of the album, and perfectly fits among the tales of sadness and struggle with inner demons.
The collection also features two Cash duets with his wife, June Carter Cash: “Jackson” and “Give My Love to Rose.” And the comical tunes “Dirty Old Egg-Sucking Dog” and “Flushed From the Bathroom of Your Heart” (both courtesy of Jack Clement) join these duets in giving welcome relief to the absolute core of the album: the comfort and the costs in sinning. The plaintive ballad “I Still Miss Someone” is even more effective in this setting, displaying a loneliness and vulnerability that’s surely at the heart of every pitiful prisoner.
The performance by Cash is electric, and the recording is real honest-to-goodness atmospheric wonder. From the warden’s words to the clanking of jail cells to the raucous, rowdy agreement of the audience, At Folsom Prison is a warts-and-all masterpiece that chills to the bone with just the baritone in Cash’s robust voice and a handful of entertaining (and often intense) songs. They scream to every outlaw and inmate, imprisoned or otherwise.
Numerous accolades marked the commercial and critical success of set. The album remained at #1 on the Billboard Country Albums chart for ten weeks, won Album of the Year from the Country Music Association and earned Cash the Grammy for Best Male Country Vocal Performance. He received an additional award in the Best Album Notes category. Even after four decades, At Folsom Prison has still not lost its appeal. In 2003, Rolling Stone named the Cash classic as one of the Top 100 albums in music history. Later that year, it was one of 50 recordings chosen by the Library of Congress to be added to the National Recording Registry.
At Folsom Prison is stark and dark and full of a heading-for-hell lust for revenge, but it also helps to explain the drive and desire that has caused these crimes to be committed. By humanizing these captive criminals and showing at least some similarities between them and the general public, he even justifies the belief that first impressions can be deceiving and second chances can be deserved. Folks from all walks of life can raise their hands in a raw, unbridled emotion as Cash digs deep into our human nature for 55 memorable minutes.