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Six Musicians Discuss Johnny Cash and At Folsom Prison

January 13, 2013  |  12:36pm
Six Musicians Discuss Johnny Cash and <i>At Folsom Prison</i>

On January 13, 1968, Johnny Cash entered Folsom State Prison, one of the first maximum security prisons in the country and the second-oldest prison in California, and recorded the legendary album At Folsom Prison. This month marks the 45th anniversary of the recording of this album. The album, which contains tracks taken from two different performances, is replete with songs about prison life and despair that resonated with his inmate audience. The album revitalized his career, and its popularity encouraged him to return to the prison scene to record At San Quentin, which would be his first album to hit Number One on the pop charts.

Below, six musicians discuss Johnny Cash, At Folsom Prison, and the legacy of The Man in Black.

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Davey Winston Jones – Frontier Ruckus
Jones doesn’t recall the exact moment he first heard Johnny Cash, but he’s confident it was with his father in a GMC pickup truck during the countless hours they spent driving to rural areas in Michigan for fishing and hunting trips. He recalls, “My father has always had a complete lack of interest in current pop country or any current radio since I was young. I think he just preferred the warmth and familiarity of the music he grew up with: Johnny Cash, Hank Williams, Flatt & Scruggs, etc.”

Discussing At Folsom Prison, Jones describes the album as “completely brilliant and a masterstroke.” He says some of his favorite moments on the album are found between songs, “Cash is a bit irreverent towards authority figures and connects so damn well with the crowd. There’s the moment after ‘Cocaine Blues’ where some official makes an announcement and Cash says offhandedly ‘Yeah, I doubt that!’”

When asked what his favorite Cash song is, Jones says, “It’d have to be ‘Sunday Morning Coming Down.’ I think it has been since the first time I heard it as a kid. Though it’s a Kris Kristofferson tune, Johnny’s version is so damn heartbreaking. The strings and flute elevate the chorus in such a perfectly beautiful and emotional way. I really think it’s the way the song was meant to be heard.”

Jones mentions a story about Cash in the Bob Dylan documentary No Direction Home, where Cash gives Dylan a guitar at the Newport Folk Festival: “Dylan was a bit confused and didn’t seem to realize that this was a statement of extreme admiration. To me, it just seems like a very old-fashioned and classy move by a guy who always seemed to be so. Cash was also a supporter of someone who many people in the traditional country and folk worlds were starting to have a really tough time with.”

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Photo by Abby Oliver

Matt Martin – Holy Ghost Tent Revival

Martin first discovered Cash from an upperclassman at his high school. According to him, that’s when he “fell under the cosmic tutelage of Doc Watson, Chet Atkins and the late, great Cash.” According to Martin, “he burned me an epic three-disk set of Cash’s material spanning the early ’50s to the late ’70s, and we would sit around learning those tunes on guitar during our many seven-hour garage sessions.”

He describes At Folsom Prison as being particularly poignant because, at the time he first heard it, he was becoming conscious of politics and human rights. “It struck a chord in my heart…that reflected the impact an artist can have, not only in drawing attention to the plight of prisoners, but the joy and compassion of performing to a rather peculiar, if not enthused, audience. It was a bold move that only added to the legend of ‘The Man in Black.’”

Martin mentions having two Cash songs he favors. One is “Flesh and Blood,” where Cash proves himself to be a masterful lyricist: “[He] paints in colorful strokes.” The other is “The Ballad of Ira Hayes,” which was written by Peter La Farge but made popular by Cash. Martin says, “I still have a recording on cassette tape of us doing ‘The Ballad of Ira Hayes,’ where my friend imitated Jimmy Stewart singing it and afterwards decried the abuse of Native American rights.”

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Curt Kirkwood – Meat Puppets
Photo by Jaime Butler

Kirkwood first heard Cash from his stepfather, who he describes as a “horseman”, when he was six years old: “We moved from Omaha to Phoenix because he raised horses, so I started being around people who listened to [country music]. My mom’s husband was a big fan.” Kirkwood says, “My mom’s husband sat me down and asked me, ‘who do you think is more of a man, Cash or the Beatles?’ And I said ‘well, the Beatles are four guys.’ That is one of my early memories of Johnny Cash.” Kirkwood liked Cash and his music immediately. He says, “I thought he was a character. It would be like seeing a character on ‘Sesame Street’ to a kid. He just really stood out.” He continues by saying, “Johnny Cash always seemed more than human, and I also always found him kind of scary back then because he was always in black and his voice was kind of strange. And no matter what he was doing, he always seemed kind of somber.”

Kirkwood thinks he was nine or ten when he first heard At Folsom Prison, and it gave him insight into subjects he didn’t understand, including why people went to prison: “I just didn’t have any idea what that would be like. It was almost like you could feel it. You came to the realization, ‘oh these guys are actually stuck in there.’ You could sense it from reactions and the overall vibe.” He believes recording live at the prison was an “amazing” and “really cool” idea. Kirkwood states, “I think, at the time, there was probably a more romantic concept about prison. It wasn’t just a ‘lock up.’” He also believes that, because the prisoners were deprived of social contact and culture, “it was a really nice thing for him to do too – paying some tribute with the songs that he did.”

Kirkwood’s favorite song performed by Cash, which appears on At Folsom Prison, is “The Long Black Veil.” He has liked it since he was young and says, “I didn’t really get it, and it took me a while before I understood what it was about. I thought it was spooky. I still love that song.” Kirkwood says another favorite is “Dark as a Dungeon,” which also appears on At Folsom Prison. He says, “It’s weird but I loved Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, and I love the scene where they are in the mine digging for gems, so I related ‘Dungeon’ to Snow White.”

Kirkwood notes Cash’s distinctive voice as having an influence on him as a musician: “Once I started singing, I didn’t really have much of a style but I got confidence from the fact that a bunch of my favorite singers weren’t considered to be great singers in terms of a Mario Lanzoa sort of a voice.”

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