Sharps & Flats

"Hello, I'm Johnny Cash."

Published October 22, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Less than a minute into "At Folsom Prison," Johnny Cash -- the Man in Black, the baddest badass in the music biz -- drawls, "I shot a man in Reno/Just to watch him die." The song is "Folsom Prison Blues," and the crowd of 2,000 convicts, a handful of armed guards and a warden or two, roars in bloodcurdling approval. The moment is surely one of the most chilling in music history. It's not that you are hearing the sound of hardened killers celebrating a music-fueled orgy of bloodlust. The audience for Cash's performance was most likely made up of petty cons busted for larceny or B&E; even in 1968, convicted murderers were not allowed to gather in the cafeteria for a couple of hours of music on a lazy Sunday afternoon. The moment is chilling because it shows that even in the dehumanizing confines of the American penal system, the 2,000 men who called Folsom home were still buying into the ideal of the romantic outlaw.

It's an ideal Cash cultivated carefully throughout his career, and never more studiously than on this release. Cash, like Hank Williams before him, bridged the divide between the sacred and the profane, dressing all in black so he would look similarly at home in a prison mess hall or a church rectory. His iconic, understated introduction -- "Hello. I'm Johnny Cash" -- sounds equally polite and menacing. He could be humbly introducing himself to his girl's parents, or he could be making sure you know his name before he shoots you dead. Like all great introductions -- James Bond's and Dirty Harry's come to mind -- Cash's sounds at once suave and sinister.

Whether singing about junkies, killers and whores or fetishizing love and otherworldly redemption, Cash's stately baritone sounded, as the most resonant voices do, as if it were the truth, and the truth appealed to everyone from suburban Republicans to petty thieves. Johnny Cash, after all, could boast enough mainstream cachet to host a prime-time variety show -- ABC's "The Johnny Cash Show," which aired from 1969 to 1971 -- while also writing songs that served, literally, as killing music. (Gary Gilmore is infamously described in Norman Mailer's "The Executioner's Song" as using Cash to steel his nerves before he shot down a Utah gas station attendant.) In bridging this divide Cash offered something otherwise unattainable to both outlaws and straight society. To the former, Cash promised both second chances and the possibility of worldly success; to the latter, a Wild West romantic ideal that has long been a part of this country's folklore.

From the start of his career in the mid-1950s, Johnny Cash had courted an outlaw image so assiduously that when he played this hour-long, 19-song set in Folsom Prison, he could lean heavily on jail tunes without really altering his typical set list. More than half the songs are either set behind bars or describe an imminent trip to the clink. In either an ultimate display of irony or a perfect parable to describe Cash's life, the singer never served serious time.

"I have been behind bars a few times," Cash writes in the liner notes with his loping scrawl. "Sometimes of my own volition, sometimes involuntarily. Each time, I felt the same feeling of kinship with my fellow prisoners." But his time was hardly the stuff prison memoirs are made of. In 1965, hopped up on speed and popping pills to maintain his touring schedule, Cash was busted by the narc squad in El Paso, Texas. He received only a suspended sentence. The next year, he was arrested again, this time for a late-night flower-picking spree on private property.

Nonetheless, performing in front of cons -- a captive audience if there ever was one -- was clearly something Cash cherished, and something he did often and remarkably well. He did it nearly perfectly on "At Folsom Prison," one of the most powerfully visceral albums recorded, period. Americans bought the record in droves. When it was first released, in 1968, the Beatles, the Stones and the Beach Boys were all at their most psychedelic. Yet Cash turned a stark album of straight-ahead country rock into a bestseller, his first in five years. While the Beatles were singing about the love you make, Cash was earning cheers in Folsom by describing the impulsive, coked-up slaughter of his girlfriend on "Cocaine Blues": "Shot her down 'cause she made me slow/I thought I was her daddy, but she had five more."

This re-release -- part of Columbia's "American Milestones" series -- adds just enough extras to the previously available "At Folsom Prison" editions to make it worthwhile. On an album on which arcana -- from the cover shot of Cash's glowering, sweat-speckled face to the on-air announcements ("Sandoval, prisoner 88-419, is wanted in reception," the warden announces at one point, making it sound as if Folsom Prison is some twisted summer camp) -- has taken its place in America's musical folklore, the addition of a dozen black-and-white photos of Cash striding the prison grounds in his trademark three-piece black suit are intensely perfect.

Three new songs are added as well. A slight, rousing version of Harlan Howard's "Busted" and a quick acoustic run-through of "Joe Bean" help round out a musical cycle that never should have been abridged. And the seven-minute version of Cash's 1963 folk ballad "The Legend of John Henry's Hammer" shows off Cash's familiarity with workingman folk tunes.

Even better, the Columbia remastering gives the music more depth. Where Luther and Carl Perkins' slashing lead guitar lines sounded slightly tinny and flat on the Folsom/San Quentin CD that has been available for years, here they sound as if they are carved in metal. And "Jackson," on which Cash is joined by his soon-to-be-wife, June Carter, is redolent in throaty swagger, with the Tennessee Three's boom-chicka-boom driving on what remains one of recorded music's most rousing duets. You can hear every note as W.S. Holland rides his cymbals, every ounce of pressure as the Perkins boys strut their way through the set.

Johnny Cash, now hobbled by age and infirmity, will not make another masterpiece. At this point, we'll be lucky if he is ever able to perform publicly again. For several years, Cash has suffered from Shy-Drager syndrome, a nervous-system disorder similar to Parkinson's disease. On Sunday, the 67-year-old singer was admitted to Baptist Hospital in Nashville, Tenn., where he is being treated for pneumonia and is listed in serious condition.

But his inability to perform now is no injury to his legacy. "At
Folsom Prison" contains enough to satisfy any reasonable person, to say
nothing of a gun-toting outlaw, for a lifetime.

By Seth Mnookin

Seth Mnookin is the co-director of the Graduate Program in Science Writing at MIT and he blogs at the Public Library of Science. His most recent book is "The Panic Virus: The True Story of the Vaccine-Autism Controversy" (Simon & Schuster). His Twitter handle is @sethmnookin.

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Country Music Johnny Cash Music