IF AT FOLSOM Prison isn’t one of the best live albums of all time, it’s certainly one of the most important. The songs, the banter, The atmosphere, it has everything. It’s the album that turned me onto Country music with its laidback, outlaw atmosphere which comes not just from Cash’s music but from the prisoners’ cheers and jeers. If you’ve ever been sceptical or unsure of this particular genre, thanks to the pop infused albums that frequent the HMV shelves, At Folsom Prison will totally convert you.
Throughout these 19 tracks, Cash swings from passion to humour via nostalgia, bringing out some of his most iconic tracks. Despite the raucous crowd, Cash beautifully performs ‘Send A Picture Of Mother’, ‘Joe Bean’ and ‘The Wall’, perhaps stirring something within the confined. He isn’t afraid to flirt with June Carter on stage during ‘Jackson’, and crack jokes through ‘Dirty Old Egg-Suckin’ Dog’ and ’25 Minutes’ and even cracks wise during some of the serious songs, notably in ‘The Long Black Veil’.
Of course performing in a prison wouldn’t be the same without some more raucous numbers. ‘Cocaine Blues’ is the definition of this, and whips the crowd into a frenzy when performed, along with ‘Busted’, another law-defying number that stirs up the inmates, with Cash’s trademark baritone snarl and pulsating country rhythms. Opening track ‘Folsom Prison Blues’ ignites the audience’s fire immediately and rightly so; It’s one of the finest moments on the record.
But some of the other best moments come with the iconic songs. His cover of ‘Green, Green Grass of Home’ resonates perfectly with the men who, up until this point have been cat-calling their way through songs. Closer ‘Greystone Chapel’, written by Folsom inmate Glen Sherley, is the perfect ending to the set. Sherley had no idea his composition was to be played, so God only knows what his reaction was. And then there’s the opener, which is, of course, starts perfectly, with Johnny Cash simply… introducing himself. The crowd goes wild.
Indeed, the audience is as bigger part of this record as Cash himself. They heckle, they cry out, they cheer; they admire Cash and Cash seems to admire them too. He laughs at their jokes, as they cheer at the lyrics referencing adultery, murder and narcotics. Their cheers nearly drown out the music on some occasions. To add to this, the music feels raw, and is often interjected by announcements, and runs at the end through the wardens meeting with Cash. ‘You’re mean bastards aren’t you?’ he chuckles as they interrupt ‘The Long Black Veil’.
After the release of the album, Cash’s career predictably had resurgence, and he was once again in the limelight. 48 years in and At Folsom Prison still stands as one of Johnny Cash’s best albums, even amongst other greats such as At San Quentin (another prison album) and the American series. It really is a gem of a live recording; evocative, raw, passionate, even amusing, and one that should be on everyone’s musical bucket-list.