Johnny Cash - At Folsom Prison
In a scene in the 2005 Johnny Cash biopic Walk The Line, during the 1968 recording of At Folsom Prison, a prison official backstage asks Cash, “Might I suggest you refrain from playing any more tunes that remind the inmates that they’re in prison?” Cash shoots back, “You think they forgot?” This is an amusing exchange, sure. It was in the preview. But a conversation one scene before reveals a lot more about the tensions that surrounded At Folsom Prison.
As the fictional Cash informs Columbia Records of his plans to record a live album in a prison, an executive protests, “Dylan’s gone electric. The Byrds are electric. The Beatles are electric. Hell, everybody’s electric. He needs a fresh sound and all he wants to do is cut a live album with the same old pickers at a maximum-security penitentiary!” There’s some further debate as to whether or not Cash singing to “a bunch of murderers and rapists, trying to cheer them up” will agree with Cash’s supposedly Christian fan base. Cash is resolute: “January 13. I’ll be at Folsom Prison with June and the boys. You listen to the tapes. You don’t like ‘em; you can toss ‘em.”
Fictionalized or not, this adds tremendous background to At Folsom Prison. In 1968, everyone was trying something new. But Cash, recovering from addiction and facing declining commercial appeal, wanted none of it—the Man in Black wasn’t going to cut a psychedelic record. So he aimed to put the narrative strengths of his outlaw-oriented material in front of the people best able to appreciate it; a literally captive audience. Cash even had a song—written, recorded and released 13 years before—perfect for the occasion; “Folsom Prison Blues.” He began the show with it. In the end, the tapes weren’t tossed; far from it. At Folsom Prison went gold, revitalized Cash’s career and has endured as one of his best albums.