Johnny Cash At Folsom Prison

Johnny Cash

Columbia / Legacy Records, 1968

REVIEW BY: Duke Egbert


Sometimes, the lightning just strikes.

The greatest CDs are the right artist in the right place at the right time. There is some alchemy of chronology that grabs a single performance or a single session and turns it from excellent into truly great. Such is what happened when Johnny Cash and his Tennessee Three played a live show on January 13, 1968, in front of 2,000 inmates at California's tough Folsom Prison. The entire show was recorded, from first to last beat. It took Cash six years to convince a record company it could be done, and finally Columbia recording exec Bob Johnston a shot. And from the first bar, you can feel the electricity running through the music, galvanizing it into something truly great. Cash had done some time behind bars himself , and it showed; on my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250 At Folsom Prison, he's playing to a fraternity of men that he'd belonged to in the past, and hell, might belong to in the future. It works; it works sweet as honey and bitter as horseradish.

The musicianship on At Folsom Prison is impeccable. This was one of Cash's great backing bands; guitarist and friend Luther Perkins would be dead before the summer, and I believe this is the last recording of the great flatpicking guitarist. Carl Perkins' guitar and Marshall Grant's bass are solid, and the backing vocals (by a young Statler Brothers) are rich and full. W.S. Holland's drumming provides a steady backbeat to Cash's haunting baritone.

What makes At Folsom Prison a classic, though, is the underlying tone of shattering tension woven through the recording. From the awkward laugh and applause of the prisoners in the audience -- who sometimes sound like they've forgotten how to have a good time -- to the interruptions from prison personnel asking men to report to processing and reception, you never once forget this is a captive audience who Cash identifies with, intimately. This is a moment outside of time, magical, powerful. As Cash puts it in the 1999 liner notes, "There is no calendar inside the cafeteria, today, January 13, 1968".

On top of all this, there's some damned great songs. "Jackson" (with June Carter), "The Long Black Veil", "Greystone Chapel" (written by Folsom inmate Glen Shirley, who was unaware that Cash was going to perform the song), "Orange Blossom Special", "Busted" -- this is an American great at his best. Sometimes the unlikeliest venue brings something out of a man…

And lightning strikes. No serious music enthusiast should be without this disc.

Rating: A

User Rating: Not Yet Rated



© 2002 Duke Egbert and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Columbia / Legacy Records, and is used for informational purposes only.