Six Musicians Discuss Johnny Cash and At Folsom Prison

Music Lists Johnny Cash
Share Tweet Submit Pin

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.

frontier-ruckus.jpg

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.”

hgtr.jpg
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.”

meat-puppets.jpg

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.”

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.

blackberry-smoke.jpg

Charlie Starr – Blackberry Smoke

Charlie Starr first became acquainted with Cash as a child through his father, a bluegrass guitarist. His father would play “Wreck of the Old 97,” a song made popular by Cash: “I always wanted to hear him sing the Old 97.” In the song, the train engineer, Steve, dies. “I was just enthralled with those lyrics with Steve being scalded to death by the steam,” says Starr. “That ended up being the first song he taught me on the guitar.”

When he was a little older, he found At Folsom Prison in his father’s record collection and reminisces about looking at it and thinking how Cash looked like a preacher: “He’s standing at the microphone—his hair is black and combed back, and he’s got sweat dripping off his brow. That’s how all Baptist preachers looked to me then when I was little.” For Starr, the original edited album was more powerful than any reissue or unedited version. He explains, “When [Cash] says you can’t say ‘hell’ or ‘shit’ or anything like that and there was a beep, that is so powerful, especially when you are a child and you hear something beep and you know a bad word was beeped but you might not be exactly sure what it was, and then your imagination runs wild. You’re like ‘what did he say that was so horrible?! That is awesome!’”

Starr says the prison environment in which it was recorded made for a spooky album: “With the warden speaking between certain songs and making prison announcements. It’s just spooky. It’s creepy at times. I know there is video of some of it, but I don’t want to see it. I don’t want to see it and have it ruin the mental picture that I have of these guys who are being entertained in prison.”

Starr shares a story he heard about Cash from George Jones or “Cowboy” Jack Clement: “I can’t remember which one told this story, but they were fishing years ago with Johnny in an aluminum johnboat and [Cash] stood up in the boat for whatever reason and had his legs spread wide apart from side to side, and whoever it was who was with him said ‘Johnny, be careful, sit down, I don’t want you to fall in and drown.’ And Johnny said ‘I can’t drown. I’m a country music legend.’”

devil-whale.jpg

Jake Fish – Devil Whale

Fish first heard Cash growing up in a “hick town” in central Utah: “My buddy’s parents owned a little cafe on Highway 6, smack-dab in the middle of nowhere. At 10 years old, we started spending weekends at the cafe bussing tables. We got paid in quarters and those quarters went to the jukebox,” said Fish. It was there, at the advice of a trucker, that Fish discovered Cash: “[He] suggested I select the Johnny Cash classic, ‘Ring of Fire.’ I must have played it a dozen times that night and dozens more every time I went back.” He continues, “Of course at 10, I had no notion of metaphor, or love for that matter, but that song was magic! It’s still a favorite and I’d recommend it to any 10-year-old.”

When asked about the album concept of recording at a prison, Fish believes “you’d be hard-pressed to find a band willing to perform at a prison these days. God knows I don’t have the guts.” He continues by saying, “Cash just really dug that character, the one from ‘Folsom Prison Blues.’ Maybe he felt as if he owed it to those dudes, or just wanted to know that character a little better. Either way, to perform the way he did, you almost think he belonged there.”

When asked what his favorite Cash song is, Fish responds, “‘Get Rhythm,’ a cheery tune about a boy shining shoes? How do you do it, Cash? Like so much of his catalog, this song seems to jump genres, combining a heel-stomp bluegrass porch performance with rock-n-roll of the late ’60s.” According to Fish, it is a “perfect tune!”

Fish believes Cash’s legacy is inextricably tied to June: “For all the shit he came through in his early years by way of his own mistakes, the years since June have seemed to define him.” He continues by saying, “While, somehow, retaining his ‘Folsom’ mystique, the man in black proved he had a soft spot. That soft spot is most apparent in the gut-wrenching American recordings, recorded while he was losing, then lost her. He was always so unapologetically straight-forward, whether he was telling you to ‘fuck off’ or ‘give him a hug.’”

jimbo.jpg

Jimbo Mathus – The Tri-State Coalition; Squirrel Nut Zippers

Mathus recalls being introduced to Cash by way of his television show: “I remember sitting on the floor in front of the massive wooden television, his craggy face and stentorian voice deeply imbedding in my infant psyche. I guess that ‘I hear that train a comin’’ are the first words I recall him saying.”

Mathus was just a baby when At Folsom Prison was released. However, he has strong feelings about the album: “Cash gives a voice to men locked away behind the immovable walls of the American justice system, forgotten idlers, side street sidlers, rednecks, loafers, bad luck kids, rapists, forgerers and murderers. All the warped and underprivileged who can’t afford no [sic] lawyer and just gotta do their time with an ‘achin heart and a worried mind.” Mathus believes the record showing up in the living rooms of American “polite society” was Cash’s way of giving the finger to the “rich folks eating in a fancy dining car.” “Gather around the hi-fi children and listen to the nice man sing about drug fueled murders and egg suckin dogs, dying hoboes and the great Mystery, flushed directly from the bathroom of men’s dark hearts. Genius. Long Live Cash!”

According to Mathus, his favorite songs from At Folsom Prison are “‘I Still Miss Someone,’ for its pure sweetness and ‘Cocaine Blues’ for its savagery. Hearing the inmates roaring in sympathetic approval of ‘Cocaine Blues’ is just so satisfying. The machine—like rhythmic clank of the band, the hoarse, breathless delivery of the verse, everything is perfect. The perfect song for the perfect audience.”

Also in Music