Thursday, January 13, 2011

This day in 1968, Johnny Cash goes to prison.

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Johnny Cash had his share of troubles and vices in his lifetime, but he never did prison time. Despite this, nobody in music history is more associated with the clink than the Man in Black. It’s interesting that Cash is much more tied to the struggles and frustrations of prison life than the legions of pop, rock and country music stars who have actually had to serve a sentence.

The legendary country singer first learned of prison life – particularly, life in Folsom State Prison – through the movies. He was a member of the U.S. Air Force Security Service in 1953, when his unit watched the film Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison. It was that movie that inspired Cash to write one of his early songs, “Folsom Prison Blues,” in which he imagined what a prisoner felt like. After signing with Sun Records, “Folsom Prison Blues” became Cash’s second single – a #1 country hit and a Top 40 pop hit in 1955.
Although Cash had never been in prison, he apparently captured the feeling of being incarcerated perfectly. The song became very popular with those doing time, who wrote letters to the country star thanking him for writing the tune and sometimes asking him to come perform at their prisons. By 1957, he obliged some inmates, by performing at Huntsville State Prison. The event went over so well that Cash continued this practice, playing concerts at prisons around the U.S. He had the idea for recording a live album at one such show, although the proposal was rejected by the country executives at Columbia Records.

In the mid-’60s, Cash and Columbia each went through some difficult times. Toward the end of ’67, Cash was kicking his drug habit and seeking to turn his career around. Meanwhile, there was a shake-up at country portion of Columbia, leaving Bob Johnson (best-known for his work with Bob Dylan and Simon and Garfunkel) as Cash’s producer at the label. Johnny dusted off his old idea for doing a concert album at a prison and Johnson jumped at the idea. He contacted both San Quentin and Folsom Prison, and the people at Folsom were the first to reply.

In early January of 1968, all of the performers that were going to be involved in the concerts made a trip to nearby Sacramento, California, to get settled and rehearse for a couple of days. The lineup included Cash, his wife June Carter Cash, his usual backing band The Tennessee Three (Marshall Grant, Luther Perkins and W.S. Holland), Carl Perkins and the Statler Brothers – along with Johnny’s dad Ray and producer Johnson. The goals for the practice sessions weren’t just to hone the ensemble’s live sound, but to learn a new song. Cash had agreed to perform “Greystone Chapel,” written by Folsom inmate Glen Sherley.
On the morning of January 13, everyone traveled to Folsom to perform two shows – one at 9:40 a.m. and one at 12:40 p.m. – just in case the first one didn’t turn out quite right. At the morning show, Perkins did “Blue Suede Shoes” and the Statlers sang “This Ole House,” with each getting a great reaction from the crowd. But the explosion was yet to come.

Between the openers and the main attraction, MC Hugh Cherry instructed the prisoners not to cheer until Cash made his famous introduction. So, before a cafeteria full of inmates at about 10 in the morning, the country great took the stage to utter silence. Arriving at the microphone, he delivered his iconic, “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash” and the place howled with delight. Kicking off with “Folsom Prison Blues,” Cash led the musicians through an exciting and wildly varied set. They played raucous prison-themed tunes (“Cocaine Blues” and “25 Minutes to Go”), somber ballads (“The Long Black Veil,” “Send a Picture of Mother”) and goofy novelty tunes (“Dirty Old Egg-Sucking Dog,” “Joe Bean”). Johnny sang with June on their hit duet, “Jackson” and closed with Sherley’s “Greystone Chapel,” identifying the inmate just before the performance, to a huge response.

Cash and company, reacting to the energy of the crowd, had given one of the most intense performances of their lives. And, at 12:40, they had to do it all over again.

Recognizing that he had depleted his energy, Cash encouraged Carl Perkins and the Statler Brothers to perform a few more songs at the start of the show. In turn, Cash clipped his performance a little shorter. Anyone who’s heard both shows (the full recordings were released in a 2008 box set) can vouch that the first performance is better, but that Johnny doesn’t give up on the second, even as his voice starts to go. It’s no wonder that the vast majority of tracks on the original album were taken from the first set. Only “Give My Love to Rose” and “I Got Stripes” were taken from the later concert. Yet, it’s indicative of Cash’s power, presence and passion that “Stripes” (played near the second show’s end) is one of the singer’s most thrilling performances.

Leaving the stage and the prison that day, Cash must have felt he had recorded something special. He would later claim that the inmates at Folsom, “were the most enthusiastic audience I have ever played to.”
The tapes that would become At Folsom Prison were mastered, edited and selected in a rather short period. By May of ’68, Columbia Records released the live album and its single (the live version of “Folsom Prison Blues”). For whatever reason, the label didn’t throw much promotion behind the release until the single began getting airplay on pop and country radio, and began scaling both charts. Soon its escalating popularity was dealt a setback.

Following the assassination of Robert Kennedy on June 5, most radio programmers refused to play a song with the line “I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die.” Over Cash’s objections, a new version (with the line excised) was released to radio and continued its ascent. Before long, edited version of “Folsom Prison Blues” topped the country charts and hit the Top 40 on the pop charts. The album proved even more popular – topping the country album charts and peaking at #13 as a pop album entry. By the end of the year, At Folsom Prison had been certified gold (500,000 copies) and was the recipient of rave reviews.
As Cash had turned over a new leaf, his career began a new chapter. Of At Folsom Prison, the star said, “that’s where things really got started for me again.” The wild success of the live album caused ABC to offer him his own TV show and encouraged Columbia to sign off on another prison album, 1969’s At San Quentin – Cash’s first album to hit #1 on the pop charts.

At Folsom Prison remains a legendary album, with millions of copies sold and tons of praise heaped upon it. It is often ranked among the best albums ever recorded and, in 2003, earned a spot in the Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry.


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