I grew up listening to my parents music. It involved a deep hatred for country music. My father preferred classical music, but his favourite non-classical artist was the late Johnny Horton, the nasally whiner who sang “Battle of New Orléans” and “North to Alaska” but died before he did much else. As that was my main exposure to country, it was easy for me to dismiss an entire genre.
When I was a teenager, living in rural Alberta, I was exposed to new country, which was essentially pop songs with ridiculously over pronounced Southern accents. These artists didn’t help. But the country was sneaking through. I mean, true country. It started with Whitney Houston’s terrible “I Will Always Love You”, which led me to Dolly Parton’s original, making me forget that I had seen a classmate do an air band routine around Parton’s overblown and weepy “Me and Little Andy” that made me want to shoot her. That led me to Kenny Rogers, which led me to “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love To Town”, which led me to Merle Haggard’s “Okie From Muskogee”, which led me to Hank Williams’ “Jambalaya”, which led me to George Jones’ “He Stopped Loving Her Today”, which led me to Willie Nelson’s Red Headed Stranger…
Which led me to Folsom.
Okay, Willie led me to The Highwaymen, who led me to Folsom. But still.
It’s a legendary record on multiple levels. It’s the best album of country music ever produced. It’s one of the greatest live albums ever recorded. It was Johnny Cash’s greatest achievement musically.
From the opening “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash” through to the last whistle and hoot, it’s a magnificent artifact from an era when artists could do this type of thing. I don’t see Jay-Z suggesting he wander into Riker’s to perform a set for the prisoners there. Even if he did, I doubt anyone would let him.
The album is a testament to the fact that country music was once the vestige of the rebel, the outcast, the independent spirit. I miss that in modern country, and those who do buck the establishment in Nashville tend to get their albums smashed ( hi, Dixie Chicks! Love your albums. All of them). It’s a stack of Cash originals, including the legendary “Folsom Prison Blues”, covers written by Merle Haggard, T.J. Arnall, and Shel Silverstein, and some appearances from June Carter herself.
Cash was always one of my absolute favourite performers. A smart man, and a talented one, he could appear dangerous and unsettled, but he would show these flashes of humour that to this day make me smile. EVen if it is about a man awaiting to go to the gallows, “25 Minutes to Go” is darkly funny, made funnier by Cash’s own theatricality. Recently, a debate has been held about a certain performer’s cover of “Folsom Prison Blues” being diminished by his blinding white smile and raspy off kilter vocals. These naysayers clearly never saw Cash perform. And they apparently never heard Cash sing this song. The Silverstein-Cash duo always was a highlight for me on Cash’s records. It meant something funny was about to go down. “A Boy Named Sue” remains one of my all time favourite country songs.
The album is probably the most relaxed one on the album. Cash’s rapport with his audience is easy, and even in the middle of the dark ballad “Long Black Veil”, there is a snicker in the audience that gets Cash laughing. There is freedom within this prison concert that both artist and audience benefit from. I heard it even as a teenager. It makes one envious that people can be that free even when physically incarcerated. Cash, of course, got to leave, and went on to be brilliant for another thirty plus years.
It’s such a gem of a record, one that replays often in my house.