This year marks the 50th anniversary of the release of one of the greatest recordings of all time, Johnny Cash’s “At Folsom Prison.” Recorded over two shows in 1968 at Folsom State Prison in California, this album reinvigorated Cash’s career.
A huge risk at the time, it took a lot of work for Cash to convince his record label to allow him to make this album. It took a shakeup in leadership at Columbia Records that saw Bob Johnston, an executive known for his disagreements with his superiors, put in charge of Cash’s production before The Man in Black found an enthusiastic partner willing to go to bat for him and his crazy idea of recording a live studio album at a California state prison.
Two performances were held for the inmates of Folsom State Prison, northeast of Sacramento, on January 13, 1968, the first at 9:40 a.m. and the second at 12:40 p.m. If you’ve seen the 2005 film “Walk the Line,” you know how this concert goes.
In the midst of a thumping, packed cafeteria, The Man in Black walks up to the microphone and says, “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash,” and the crowd goes wild. Those are some of the most famous words in all of music, and they jumpstart this album.
A reporter who was there for the concert said, “I was sitting in the audience with Cash’s father, Ray, and looked around at the prisoners with some trepidation. I had never been in a prison before. I was stunned at how many of them had clean-cut, baby faces and could have been the boy next door. Of course, there were others with broad shoulders, shaven heads, and big tattoos, that looked like they’d rather kill you than shake your hand.”
“At Folsom Prison” is an album you can and should listen to straight through, in one sitting. Just block out the world, put away your phone, and immerse yourself in this perfect example of a live album done right. Cash opens with “Folsom Prison Blues,” appropriately enough. It’s one of his oldest hits, and the perfect song to get this particular crowd going.
Later on we get “I Still Miss Someone” and the great “Cocaine Blues” where he calls out the warden, before the countdown to an execution, “25 Minutes to Go.” Cash had been doing songs throughout prisons well before recording this show and he would continued to do that well afterward, so his setlist was a fine-tuned machine by this point, perfectly pitched to his audience.
Cash’s fascination with a prison album stemmed from viewing the Crane Wilbur film “Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison” in 1953 while he was in the Air Force. Even people in his own band weren’t sure it was going to be a success.
When he arranged the date at Folsom, Cash at least knew he’d have a captive audience. “One thing he liked about playing prisons: If he did something the audience didn’t like, they couldn’t leave,” W.S. “Fluke” Holland, Cash’s drummer at the time, said. Holland didn’t expect much would come of the two sessions the band played that day.
“I told everybody it won’t sell enough to pay for the expense of going out with the recording equipment,” Holland recalls. “That shows how wrong I was.”
This album has the definitive edition of several of Cash’s classics, plus a song with a unique story. “Greystone Chapel” was written by Folsom inmate Glen Sherley, who was serving time for armed robbery. Sherley had made a recording of the song and gotten a copy of it to Rev. Floyd Gressett, a pastor who consoled inmates at the prison and helped put on the concert. The reverend gave a copy of the tape to Cash. After hearing the song, Cash decided they would learn the song for the show and surprise Sherley.
Sherley later went on to write for other country artists, record his own work, and even get out of jail early, but could not cope with the fame of his success and died in a murder-suicide in 1978. Cash paid for his burial.
“At Folsom Prison” reignited Cash’s music career, and led to a second live album at San Quentin the following year. “Folsom” is still thought to be one of the best live albums of all time, and rightly so.
When you listen to “At Folsom Prison,” why not enjoy a great drink while you soak up the sounds of the one of America’s best live performances? From the new book “Booze and Vinyl” by Andre and Tenaya Darlington comes this perfect cocktail to enjoy while listening to Cash sing about shooting a man in Reno, “just to watch him die.”
The Suffering Bastard
1 oz. bourbon
1 oz. gin
1/2 oz. fresh lime juice
1/2 oz. simple syrup
Dash of Angostura bitters
4 oz. chilled ginger beer
Orange slice for garnish
Add bourbon, gin, lime juice, simple syrup, and bitters to a rocks or Collins glass filled with ice, stir to combine, then top with ginger beer and garnish with orange slice.
There is no better name for a cocktail to enjoy with this album.