Just about anything Johnny Cash does has reached classic status at this point, but At Folsom Prison will always have a soft spot in the heart of every country music fan. I always had a difficult time looking at Johnny Cash as a country singer because his look, attitude, and music never seemed to fit the role for me. He was just an awesome singer that I had the privilege to see live when I was young. The songs on At Folsom Prison are stories as you would expect with country music, but they are told in a way that only the Man in Black could tell them.
The song Folsom Prison Blues had been released in 1955, and the success of that song is what inspired Johnny Cash to go out and play prisons later in his career. Contrary to popular belief, At Folsom Prison is not the live album that spawned the mega-hit A Boy Named Sue. But yet At Folsom Prison occupies a place of distinction as being one of the most successful live albums ever released. I can guarantee you that it is the most popular live album ever made at a prison. And if it isn't the only other competition are the other prison albums made by Johnny Cash, so it all comes out in the wash.
Johnny Cash put on two shows the day he recorded At Folsom Prison because he wanted to be sure that the album had the best possible material. The first show was at 9:40 a.m., which was odd considering how much of a night owl Johnny Cash was in those days. Most of the material on At Folsom Prison was from the first show. By the time the second show started at 12:40 p.m., the band and Cash were worn out. The second show was not quite up to par, so only two tracks from the second show made it onto the final album.
Johnny Cash wrote songs that talked about the things he believed in. He was a huge advocate for Native American rights, so he wrote stories about brave Native Americans and weaved real Native American folk tales into his stories. He was also a big believer in better conditions for prisoners, which is what spawned all of the songs he wrote about prison life.
The thing I find odd about At Folsom Prison is that, by 1968, Johnny Cash was a prolific songwriter. He was one of those guys who would write a song backstage as he was getting ready to play for thousands of people, and then he would play the new song that night. But very few of the songs on At Folsom Prison were written by Cash. In all, Cash only wrote or co-wrote five out of 16 songs on the record, which says to me that he was much more interested in making a statement with the set list than promoting his own music.
If you have never heard At Folsom Prison, then I highly recommend it. This is a live record that was very raw, and it offers you the chance to hear a show like you have never heard one before. Even if you never listen to this album again, it is definitely worth at least one listen from every music fan in the world.
Rating: 4 out of 5
George N Root III is a music fanatic who loves live Johnny Cash. Follow him on Twitter @georgenroot3, or send him a message at firstname.lastname@example.org.