August 5, 2006


REVIEW: of At Folsom Prison - Johnny Cash (Seth Mnookin, Salon)

Less than a minute into "At Folsom Prison," Johnny Cash -- the Man in Black, the baddest badass in the music biz -- drawls, "I shot a man in Reno/Just to watch him die." The song is "Folsom Prison Blues," and the crowd of 2,000 convicts, a handful of armed guards and a warden or two, roars in bloodcurdling approval. The moment is surely one of the most chilling in music history. It's not that you are hearing the sound of hardened killers celebrating a music-fueled orgy of bloodlust. The audience for Cash's performance was most likely made up of petty cons busted for larceny or B&E; even in 1968, convicted murderers were not allowed to gather in the cafeteria for a couple of hours of music on a lazy Sunday afternoon. The moment is chilling because it shows that even in the dehumanizing confines of the American penal system, the 2,000 men who called Folsom home were still buying into the ideal of the romantic outlaw.

It's an ideal Cash cultivated carefully throughout his career, and never more studiously than on this release. Cash, like Hank Williams before him, bridged the divide between the sacred and the profane, dressing all in black so he would look similarly at home in a prison mess hall or a church rectory. His iconic, understated introduction -- "Hello. I'm Johnny Cash" -- sounds equally polite and menacing. He could be humbly introducing himself to his girl's parents, or he could be making sure you know his name before he shoots you dead. Like all great introductions -- James Bond's and Dirty Harry's come to mind -- Cash's sounds at once suave and sinister.

Whether singing about junkies, killers and whores or fetishizing love and otherworldly redemption, Cash's stately baritone sounded, as the most resonant voices do, as if it were the truth, and the truth appealed to everyone from suburban Republicans to petty thieves. Johnny Cash, after all, could boast enough mainstream cachet to host a prime-time variety show -- ABC's "The Johnny Cash Show," which aired from 1969 to 1971 -- while also writing songs that served, literally, as killing music. (Gary Gilmore is infamously described in Norman Mailer's "The Executioner's Song" as using Cash to steel his nerves before he shot down a Utah gas station attendant.) In bridging this divide Cash offered something otherwise unattainable to both outlaws and straight society. To the former, Cash promised both second chances and the possibility of worldly success; to the latter, a Wild West romantic ideal that has long been a part of this country's folklore.

From the start of his career in the mid-1950s, Johnny Cash had courted an outlaw image so assiduously that when he played this hour-long, 19-song set in Folsom Prison, he could lean heavily on jail tunes without really altering his typical set list. More than half the songs are either set behind bars or describe an imminent trip to the clink. In either an ultimate display of irony or a perfect parable to describe Cash's life, the singer never served serious time.

"I have been behind bars a few times," Cash writes in the liner notes with his loping scrawl. "Sometimes of my own volition, sometimes involuntarily. Each time, I felt the same feeling of kinship with my fellow prisoners." But his time was hardly the stuff prison memoirs are made of. In 1965, hopped up on speed and popping pills to maintain his touring schedule, Cash was busted by the narc squad in El Paso, Texas. He received only a suspended sentence. The next year, he was arrested again, this time for a late-night flower-picking spree on private property.

Nonetheless, performing in front of cons -- a captive audience if there ever was one -- was clearly something Cash cherished, and something he did often and remarkably well. He did it nearly perfectly on "At Folsom Prison," one of the most powerfully visceral albums recorded, period.

My son, the junkie: I finally had to let him save, or kill, himself (Wendy Mnookin, Aug. 27, 1999, Salon)

    Harvard and heroin: I coasted to an Ivy League degree as a drug addict, but forever damaged the bond between mother and son. (Seth Mnookin, Aug. 27, 1999, Salon)

Posted by Orrin Judd at August 5, 2006 5:45 PM

It's also worth noting this recent City Journal piece on the reasons why "Hollywood Loves Johnny Cash--and not Merle Haggard".

Posted by: Ed Driscoll at August 5, 2006 6:17 PM

I think it's possible to like Johnny Cash *and* Merle Haggard at the same time. Both gentlemen's albums get frequent playing around my house. George Jones, too.

Posted by: Bryan at August 5, 2006 7:38 PM

No David Allan Coe?

Posted by: oj at August 5, 2006 7:54 PM

OK, I'll bite. What's with the juxtaposition of father-abused po' boy and mother-coddled Newtonian? Both had a form of genius and an addictive personality. And ... ?

Posted by: ghostcat at August 5, 2006 8:16 PM