Johnny Cash album review (Writer's Cramp entry)
|With an artist as prolific as Johnny Cash (97 albums!), it can be difficult to find an entry point to their discography. Do you start with their first album? Their biggest hits? I ultimately decided to start before his music career even began.
As a young twenty-something serving in the United States Air Force, Johnny Cash watched a documentary called Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison (1951), which inspired him to write a song imagining what it would be like to be an inmate serving time in prison. The result, “Folsom Prison Blues,” was recorded in 1955 and included on his very first studio album, Johnny Cash with His Hot and Blue Guitar! (1957). In addition to the song being so popular that Cash often opened his concerts with it, the song became popular among inmates around the country as well; they would write to him and request he perform at their prison. Cash’s first prison performance was at Texas’ Huntsville State Prison in 1957, and the reception was positive enough that it encouraged him to perform at other prisons around the country.
After a period of waning popularity following drug dependency issues, Cash was looking for something to set him apart, and he pitched his label on the idea of recording a live album at a prison. They sent letters to both San Quentin State Prison and Folsom State Prison, and with Folsom being the first to respond, the stage was set for him to record his first live album at the very place where he chose to set one of his first hit songs.
At Folsom Prison was recorded on January 13, 1968. Cash opened with “Folsom Prison Blues” and then went on to do a number of other songs about prison, among them “The Wall,” and “25 Minutes to Go.” He performed two shows, although only two of the fifteen tracks on the album ended up coming from the second show, which was largely attributed to fatigue on the part of the band, who had also rehearsed extensively the day before (and, fun fact, received a visit from California’s then-Governor Ronald Reagan who wanted to offer his encouragement!). The album was produced in four months and received very little investment by the label. It was also unfortunately timed so that it overlapped with Cash’s prior single “Rosanna’s Going Wild” on the charts, as well as Sirhan Sirhan’s assassination of Senator Robert F. Kennedy. As a result of that political sensitivity, the label insisted that the iconic line, “I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die”1 be removed, which was done over Cash’s objections. Despite all that, the album received overwhelmingly positive reviews and ended up revitalizing Cash’s career. At Folsom Prison would go on to be re-released in 1999 with three extra tracks not featured in the original LP, and then re-issued once again in 2008 as a “legacy edition” which included both concerts from January 13, 1968, uncut and remastered.
I’ve never been a huge fan of Johnny Cash (or old-timey country music in general), but I am partial to this album (and the song “Folsom Prison Blues”) because I actually grew up in Folsom, California and it’s unquestionably one of the things our town is most famous for. So famous, in fact, that when I was working at the local Borders Books and Music during my early college years, I would sometimes get calls from out-of-towners looking for a book they were told we had in stock, and they would invariably ask, “Where is your store located? Is it in the prison?” But I do appreciate the thematic approach Johnny Cash took to this album, imagining the experience of inmates in prison and performing songs intended to evoke empathy with their experience. In addition to “Folsom Prison Blues” and “The Wall,” the other tracks on this album that I really like are “Dark as the Dungeon,” “The Long Black Veil,” and “Green, Green Grass of Home.” I actually might check out the “legacy edition” at some point to experience what each of the two original concerts were like, and compare the two.
For an artist as wide-ranging and prolific as Johnny Cash, there are literally hundreds of entry points to his extensive career. But if you’re going to start somewhere, you might as well start with one of his most famous songs, which became his first live album, which revitalized his career and put a small town in Northern California on the map.
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Written For: "The Writer's Cramp"
Prompt: February 26, 1932 is the day that J. R. Cash was born. People around the entire world know him as Johnny Cash. Choose one of his albums as a title and review the album. Persuade me to buy it! Write it NOT as a poem - you have to write a proper review. Maximum 1000 words.