I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die
--- Johnny Cash, “Folsom Prison Blues”
2018 marks 50 years since the release of Johnny Cash’s “At Folsom Prison.” Released in May 1968, there’s no doubt the album made an impact at the time, serving to both solidify the legendary singer’s outlaw image and revitalize a career under the threat of stagnation. The album was recorded live from the infamous California penitentiary and upon its release, sparked notable controversy for its subject matter and commercial performance.
Cash’s tenure with the US Air Force in the late-50s ended and was followed by an explosive early career. His success increased, and Cash became notorious for his volatile, drug-addled personal life that resulted in several run-ins with the law. Shrouded in this newfound bad-boy image, Cash received numerous offers to perform in prisons. The first of which was a live show at Huntsville State Prison in Texas in 1957 and a second at San Quentin in 1958. A decade later, Cash strode through the doors of Folsom with The Tennessee Three and a retinue of recording equipment to stand before a crowd of 2,000 inmates, all of them silent amid the hostile setting. After strapping on his guitar and uttering a simple introduction, the tension of armed guards and the threat of punishment ebbed. Only the smooth baritone and strumming fingers of Cash remained and what resulted was a lasting impact for both society and the singer himself.
In the years leading up to the album’s release, the success of Cash’s early career seemed to dwindle. The prospect of returning to this familiar venue proved promising to Cash, who had set upon the path of reform. Thus, he pleaded with Columbia Records to back the performance. Despite initial hesitation from Columbia, Bob Dylan’s producer Bob Johnston gave Cash the go-ahead. What resulted was a massive success that eclipsed the sales figures of even The Beatles, selling 6.5 million copies and topping mainstream charts. Despite the album’s commercial success and lasting cultural impact, At Folsom Prison awakened a philanthropic response in Cash. The experience of performing for convicts became so much more to Cash than just some gimmick that fit his image. The singer actually felt a connection to the downtrodden men, seeing much of himself in them, and felt that he held some responsibility in their reform. No such man benefited from Cash’s generosity than one Glen Sherley, the writer of the album’s final track, “Greystone Chapel.” The song found its debut on the album, and after his release from Folsom, Sherley was offered a place in Cash’s band.
However, this didn’t last and Sherley was dismissed for threatening the life of a fellow bandmate. Sherley remains one of many prisoners that Cash reached out to, committed to helping them obtain parole and assimilate back into society – a pursuit that wore on Cash. “I honestly think my dad had an inflated sense of his own power about his ability to change some of these men’s lives, and I think it got him into trouble,” recalls daughter Rosanne Cash in a 2018 interview. “I think that he went into territory he probably shouldn't have, emotional territory. You can't hasten someone else's recovery or enlightenment and I think that my dad had a sense of maybe he could and it didn't turn out well all the time. And I think dad eventually felt imprisoned by those relationships” (Michael Streissguth). In spite of this, the album aided Cash in rejuvenating both his career and his personal life as he moved toward sobriety and ascended to newer heights.
The content of the album’s songs were specifically tailored to the venue and its audience. Each cut from At Folsom Prison features lyrics inspired by incarceration, most notably the first track “Folsom Prison Blues” and “25 Minutes to Go.” The former song has forever associated the institution with Cash. Other tracks adopt a more introspective feel based on Cash’s delivery, while still maintaining the thematic solidarity of the album, as with “Cocaine Blues.” The song deals with the actions brought on by addiction and the legal process. This particular track seems something of a comedic catharsis for Cash as he chuckles his way through each verse, the lyrics revealing a good deal of self-insertion, “When I was arrested, I was dressed in black.” These songs undoubtedly caused quite a stir during the time of release, with many listeners finding issue with the dark themes and controversial venue. Though, this didn’t hinder the lasting effects of the album, which is considered a seminal work of the 60's and regarded as a cornerstone of the country genre.
Though the journey of life for the Man in Black has long since ended, we are left within the oasis of his legacy that has flourished in the shade of his immense shadow. It has been even longer since the release of At Folsom Prison, but the resonance of its impact remains intact and continues to inspire current and up-and-coming acts.