New set humanizes larger-than-life icon
In the documentary included with this new edition of Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison, daughter Rosanne shatters the mythology surrounding her dad, gently bringing him down to earth where he’s always belonged. “He was a real man with great faults, and great genius and beauty in him,” she says, “but he wasn’t this guy who could save you or anyone else.”
Cash himself sometimes forgot that. When he and his entourage descended on California’s Folsom State Prison in January 1968 for this historic performance, the chaplain gave him a tape of a song one of the inmates had written. Cash liked it so much that he and his band quickly worked up a version to play during their performances the next morning.
Of all the powerful songs the band played that day—from the rumbling “Folsom Prison Blues” to the pensive “Green, Green Grass of Home”—Cash’s performance of inmate Glen Sherley’s “Greystone Chapel” is the highlight. The lyrics—“inside the walls of prison my body may be, but the Lord has set my soul free”—address everything important about Johnny Cash at that pivotal moment in his life: the despair that had trapped him in a seemingly hopeless drug addiction, the faith that was bringing him out of it, and the resolve that inspired him to give back to others in need.
Sherley became a symbol of the good things that could happen to a convict given a second chance. When the inmate was released, Cash took him under his wing and helped him secure a record deal. But life is not a made-for-TV movie. Sherley was unable to adjust to freedom and eventually committed suicide. Turns out, Cash was no messiah. He was a mere man, and his imperfections—not his myth—are the reason his music still resonates beyond any specific genre.
It’s no exaggeration to say that Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison is his masterwork. Beginning with the 1957 release of his Sun Records debut, Johnny Cash with His Hot and Blue Guitar (which included “Folsom Prison Blues”), he created a new kind of country that encompassed the compassion of traditional folk ballads, the spit and grit of honky-tonk, the dangerous edge of blues and the glory of gospel. Cash—as much as Elvis Presley or Chuck Berry—embodied all the thorny contradictions that define post-War American popular music, from rock & roll to hip-hop.
Desperate, difficult, politically incorrect lines delivered with a breaking voice behind the clicka-clicka-chug of bass and guitar—“I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die” (“Folsom Prison Blues”), “I can’t forget the day I shot that bad bitch down” (“Cocaine Blues”)—have echoed across the rock era, from the outlaw country of Johnny Paycheck to the Gothic punk of Nick Cave to the hardcore hip-hop of Tupac Shakur. But so has Cash’s compassion. There’s a direct link from “25 Minutes to Go,” which Cash sings here from the perspective of a convict on death row, to Shakur’s “16 on Death Row,” in which the rapper also assumes the role of a doomed convict: “Dear Mama, they sentenced me to death / Today’s my final day, I’m counting every breath.” It’s that mix of hard reality and soft empathy that brings Cash’s prison audience to its feet, yelling and whistling its collective approval as if the proceedings might turn into a jailhouse riot at any moment.
This complete Folsom Prison package includes material that isn’t on previous reissues—the wonderful “I’m Here to Get My Baby Out of Jail,” plus performances from guitarist Carl Perkins and opening band The Statler Brothers. It also includes a second disc featuring an entirely different performance of the same songs, recorded at the prison later that day (Cash played a backup show at the producers’ request, but it ended up being a bit lethargic and proved unnecessary anyway).
Some may complain that this additional material waters down the raw power of the original 16-track album. But while the 1968 edition certainly captures the show’s heart and soul, these new extras—particularly the moving documentary, which renders Hollywood biopic Walk the Line superfluous—offer important insight into the making of an album that hasn’t aged one bit in its 40-year existence. As Rosanne Cash says in one of the DVD extras, “Rebellion never gets old, and there’s just a giant ‘fuck you’ on the whole record to authority in all its forms. And that’s very seductive, no matter what the generation.”