Johnny Cash’s Folsom Prison concert, 50 years on

When Johnny Cash arrived at the gates of Folsom Prison on a cold winter morning in 1968 he may not have known it but his life was about to change.

He had gone to the prison with his new wife June Carter Cash and his backing band the Tennessee Three to record a live album, against good advice.

As his drummer Fluke Holland recalls somewhat sheepishly, “I kept saying, look guys, it won’t sell enough to pay for tape”.

But Cash, whose career had already seen many ups and downs, gambled that playing for a bunch of murderers would make an anti-establishment statement that would forever change his image.

As journalist Graeme Thomson explains, “with Folsom Prison, Cash finally became the mythic artist we recognise today, the man others would call the rebel and outsider, the badass”.

Gambling on his fortune

Cash desperately needed a change in fortune. He was addicted to pills, recently divorced, with his health in a parlous state and his career sliding downhill.

Performing in jail was a perfect fit for a man in his own psychic prison.

Normally Cash hated rehearsing, preferring to go with the flow. For this performance though, nothing was left to chance. Three days before, Cash booked into a local motel with his band and worked hard on the act, preparing a set list suitable for the occasion.

Depending who you talk to, he was either cold sober or stoned when he hit the stage. “Truth be told, he was stoned,” expert in Cash history, Mark Stielper, recently told Uncut magazine.

If he was, it didn’t show and from the minute he took the stage in a black suit and white shirt, the hardened crims responded well.

“He felt for those people and he made it very obvious,” Cash’s bass player Marshall Grant recalls.

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A set list fit for murderers

The set list wasn’t for the faint-hearted: 25 Minutes to Go charts the count-down for a prisoner awaiting execution. Long Black Veil is the story of a man who’s hanged for murder even though he has an alibi. His alibi is his best friend’s wife, who is also his lover.

The peak of the concert came with the song Folsom Prison Blues: “I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die, when I hear that whistle blowing I hang my head and cry”.

It was a song custom built for the moment. In fact, Cash had written it in the ’50s, borrowing some of its greatest lines from a song by Gordon Jenkins. First released in 1955, it had also featured on a 1964 album without much impact.

Here though, it found its home.

Later, producer Bob Johnston would mix the track with added whoops and yelling from the audience to amplify its power.

In a year that saw the death of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, it was a dangerous thing to do, leading some radio stations to edit the song.

That didn’t dent its popularity.

If Folsom Prison walked the line of good taste, Greystone Chapel was the antidote. In another intuitive master-stroke, Cash heard the song, written by Folsom Prison inmate Glen Sherley, just days before the concert. Captivated, “the man in black” rehearsed it with his band. Until he stepped on stage, no-one including Cash knew if it would work. It did, providing the perfect closing track on the original vinyl album.

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A new mythos for Cash

Immediately after the two concerts, Cash and the band were back on tour. Meanwhile, his producer set about mixing the tapes and pulling two concerts into one LP. It was no easy task, but the results stunned everyone. Released 50 years ago, it rocketed to number 13 on the Billboard charts.

Chart success was only part of the deal though. Even as sales flew skyward, rumours spread that Cash had himself done serious jail time. He hadn’t, spending a night in jail on a couple of occasions for misdemeanours, including stealing flowers from a garden. But the album established a new myth around Cash: that he was an outsider with a dark side, filled with pain.

The result was an artist who could appeal to the toughest working-class audience and the counter-culture, at the same time.

A year on from the release of At Folsom Prison, Cash would release another prison album, Live at San Quentin with its very bankable single, Boy Named Sue.

It didn’t end there.

He also used the success of Folsom to win his own national television show. It was a smash hit, with an eclectic range of guests, that ran from Burl Ives to Joni Mitchell and Neil Young. It built on his ability to straddle the mainstream and the underground, leading to his greatest triumph, when he persuaded the reclusive Bob Dylan to come on the show.

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A turning point

Cash’s career would take many twists and turns over the coming decades but it’s hard not to see his At Folsom Prison album as the turning point, an event that would both define him and his best work, before and after.

Years later as Cash’s career fell away, producer Rick Rubin took cues from the Folsom album for Cash’s 81st album, American Recordings. As Rubin saw it, the starker and darker the better.

Just Johnny Cash, his guitar and his demons, before the microphone.

That winter morning when Johnny Cash walked into Folsom Prison, he turned the tide on his fortunes. Fifty years on, with the release of the entire performance on CD and vinyl, we can imagine ourselves in the audience and hear just how remarkable it was.

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