Sunday, November 2, 2008
Johnny Cash Live at Folson Prison
There are two retrospectives released recently about the man in black. One is a DVD documentary and CD Johnny Cash's America the other is the remastered release of Live at Folsom Prison, which also includes a DVD and an album of unreleased material. For the former Kelly gives the best review anywhere over on Twangville and Gobblers Knob so I won't even attempt to take on that one. But Folsom Prison was important for so many reasons I would like to reflect on that recording. It was a seminal release for Cash because it launched a second stage of his career when he was at a a crossroads. It is at crossroads like these where most artists' careers die. Cash's took off even though he did what everyone told him not to do. Instead of getting rid of his traditional sound and going more mainstream, he went to a prison and recorded an album. Why, because he knew how to connect to people. He knew fans could see and appreciate the sincerity of what he was doing. Cash was close friends with a California pastor who had a ministry at Folsom Prison. This pastor thought his appearance could make a difference. So he went there because he cared. As Kelly Dearmore pointed out in his aforementioned review, Cash's true fans consider him family. This sincerity and Cash's concern for the forgotten and downtrodden meant a lot to many people. Recording an album at a prison made little sense to the contemporary Nashville records execs who were obsessed with taking country mainstream.
Cash knew his fan base and bet that others would be compelled by the recording. Cash sensed that his fans weren't as shallow as the recording executives thought. He knew what he wanted and did it his way, as usual. He may have cleaned up his act at that point in his life but he was still a rebel. The irony of it all is that Cash ended up doing exactly what music row wanted. He extended his fan base. The album rose to number 1 on country and number 13 on the pop charts. The evening started with some of the most powerful words in music History, "Hi I'm Johnny Cash." Throughout the album it is obvious Cash empathized with the prisoners. He himself had been prisoner to his own depression, insecurity and the memory of his deceased brother. One special moment was when he sang "Greystone Chapel" a song written by Folsom inmate Glenn Sherley. In the end Cash did it his way with phenomenal results. However, no member of the Cash family of fans finds it surprising that he succeeded by foregoing making an album targeted to mainstream middle America and instead recorded an album to society's outcasts.