Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison: Legacy Edition

Johnny Cash:
Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison: Legacy Edition

[Columbia/Legacy; 2008]
Rating: 9.7

It's odd not hearing "Hello, I'm Johnny Cash" at the very beginning of this 2xCD/1xDVD set of the Man in Black's infamous show at Folsom Prison. His signature introduction-- as if he actually needed to tell an audience who he was-- is one of the best moments in recorded rock history, rendered in his immediately recognizable robust baritone and prompting unabashed applause. On all previous editions of this concert, whether vinyl, cassette, eight-track, or CD, have begun with that four-word intro, but Columbia/Legacy's new set relegates it to the actual moment in the show, well after Carl Perkins and the Statler Brothers have warmed up the crowd. Here it's revealed to be a rehearsed moment:

Hugh Cherry: I need your help. When John comes out here, he will say-- and which will be recorded-- "Hi there. I'm Johnny Cash." When he says that, then you respond. Don't respond to him walking out. Welcome him after he says, "Johnny Cash." I'll have my hands up, and you just follow me.

Johnny Cash: Hello, I'm Johnny Cash.

Crowd: Goes nuts.

Call it staged if you want, but the moment comes across as genuine, as if the emcee had told the prisoners what they had planned to do anyway. And it's justified by Cash's notoriously volatile performance, which made this concert the foundation of his mid-career resurgence and the framing device for the 2005 biopic Walk the Line. His countercultural appeal during the late 1960s and his abiding popularity throughout the 1970s are grounded in the rough-and-tumble energy he exudes on stage. This edition of At Folsom Prison is a companion piece of sorts to Columbia/Legacy's 2006 reissue of At San Quentin, but it's easily the greater of the two, if only because it was both such a risky endeavor and such a rewarding payoff. When Cash and his crew arrived to play this show, he had been playing prisons routinely and had even serenaded the rowdy crowds at Folsom before, but this was the first time anyone had seen any commercial benefit in recording a show.

Described as worried but determined before the show, Cash gives a superlative performance, feisty and playful and a bit maudlin. It's an ideal setlist, with every song playing to the prisoners: "25 Minutes to Go" and "Dark As a Dungeon" of course, but also "Green, Green Grass of Home" and "I Still Miss Someone", which evoke a more general sense of yearning. Furthermore, the definitive versions of several of his hits are here, including the raucous "Cocaine Blues" and "Folsom Prison Blues", but the show is equally remarkable for the banter he maintains with the prisoners. Playing off their excitement, he slyly portrays himself as a rebel: Before "I Still Miss Someone", Cash explains, "This show is being recorded for an album release on Columbia Records, and you can't say 'hell' or 'shit' or anything like that." Previously the latter has been bleeped out, but this reissue reinstates the expletive. "How does that grab you, Bob?" he asks, referring to producer Bob Johnston.

Cash played two shows that day, one at 9:40 in the morning and another at 12:40 in the afternoon. While previous editions of At Folsom Prison have reproduced the bulk of the first show while drawing one or two tracks from the second, the Columbia/Legacy edition presents both performances uncut and remastered, which gives the set a documentary feel as well as some historical weight. The first performance sounds tense and immediate, the second somewhat relieved, less energetic and therefore less urgent. The liners suggest that Cash was simply tired, but it seems more likely that the worst of it was over and he knew he had nothing left to prove at that point. Even so, the rough second-show performances of "Greystone Chapel" might just surpass Cash's first-show take. With June Carter and the Statlers, he runs through the song twice, channeling all his woe and weariness as he tries to get a good take. That the song's composer, Glen Sherley, was then a Folsom inmate not only lends it gravity, but also bolsters the suspicions Amanda Petrusich addresses in her Pitchfork review of At San Quentin-- namely, that Cash's prison shows "exploited the convicts' plight to buoy his own rep."

And of course, Cash never really did all the hard time he sang about in "Folsom Prison Blues"; his violations were largely misdemeanors (picking flowers in Starkville, Mississippi) rather than outright felonies (shooting a man in Reno just to watch him die). But his lackluster rap sheet doesn't make these two shows any less rewarding or meaningful. Rather, they have the force of empathic endeavors, as if he were doing penance for his notorious bad habits. Having courted his own prison sentences-- both literally and metaphorically-- Cash knew how little separated the free and the condemned, so he turned his angst into raucous country music during his first performance and breathed a deep sigh of relief during his second.

- Stephen M. Deusner, October 23, 2008