Johnny Cash - At Folsom Prison
"Hello, I'm Johnny Cash" Dang da da dang da da dang dang dang dang dang. So began the each and every Johnny Cash concert played once Folsom Prison Blues had been written. From appearing on the same bill as Elvis Presley to his triumphant appearance at Glastonbury in 1994, this simple introduction was barged out of the way by that dirty opening riff, played out from behind the bars of Folsom prison.
As 1968 found hippies shaking the dust from their hair in San Francisco and playing the part of the outlaw so long as their allowances lasted, Johnny Cash, as much outlaw as he was preacher, heard the gates of Folsom Prison slam shut behind him for a legendary gig. No surprise then to find that At Folsom Prison, the resulting album and one of two great live albums recorded by Johnny Cash in the final two years of the sixties, breaks open with that howdy from the stage in front of two thousand inmates and a whole bunch of well-armed guards.
At Folsom Prison ain't the place to be if you're looking for songs about the glory of fighting the law 'til death. As the subject of Folsom Prison Blues sits afraid to look out the window, he can't avoid hearing the pounding of the train along the tracks outside his cell and curses the day he ever shot a man just to watch him die. Knowing that he'll die in this same cell as the rich folks pass by, At Folsom Prison is about the law catching up with those who break it, not only in its songs but also in the audience that hollers between songs and over Cash's singing. Even the raucous Cocaine Blues, which storms on from that first hit of the drug through the killings, the run from the police and the chaotic appearance in court, ends with the stern warning to, "stay off that whiskey and let that cocaine be" as the judge convicts Cash's addict of murder in the first degree. "Lordy lordy, have mercy on me" sings Cash with the knowledge that in the world of the men amongst whom he is performing, there is little mercy, precious little forgiveness and, once those gates close, no memory of those within the walls of Folsom Prison from those without.
Least hopeful of all the songs here is 25 Minutes To Go in which Cash's subject sings of the final twenty-five minutes of his life before the platform on which he's standing gives way and the rope that connects him to the gallows breaks his neck. Minute-by-minute, Cash counts down the final prayer, final walk from his cell, final glimpse of sunlight and that final minute as the hangman prepares to pull the lever. Even in the tenderly played The Long Black Veil, a murderer is haunted by the woman he killed, not only by appearing in the crowd at his hanging but also watching over his grave years later.
There's a darkness in Cash's writings that the rhinestone and gingham crowd never caught. In the photographs in the CD booklet, Cash's sharp black suit not only lives up to his title of 'The Man In Black' but shows the stained souls of those about whom he sang. And for a man like Cash, the soul was just as important as the heart, quicker was he to sing of salvation as of love and nowhere in Cash's recordings do love, God and murder come together as effectively as they do here. Unlike, say, the next year's At San Quentin, which divides the songs more neatly than Cash ever lived them, At Folsom Prison sees each killer think about the girl he left behind outside before praying that she'll not only get over him but that God will be merciful once the hangman does his duty.
Still, there's humour as the all-too-typically titled Flushed From The Bathroom Of Your Heart and Dirty Old Egg-Suckin' Dog demonstrate. This is country, after all. Cash spits out the words and the two thousand inmates laugh it up, knowing that for a man given to preaching about the soul, Cash could also be wickedly funny.
Cash and his band are on fantastic form, holding steady to a country two-step with guitarist Luther Perkins playing some of the best guitar in his life. Sadly, Perkins died later that year in a fire and was replaced with the double-timed picking of Bob Wootten but that light country touch brought by Perkins into the famous Tennessee Three was absent from Cash's music from that point on. At Folsom Prison is still the best place to hear that flicker of rock turned into Cash's rough take on a traditional country sound.
From 1968, things were never the same again for Cash. With Perkins gone, Cash's music became ever more storming but never again caught that mix of black humour, hopefulness and country music, tenderly played, until Rick Rubin urged Cash to leave both the studio and the band behind for 1994's American Recordings.