november 2008

Legacy Edition

In 1999 Columbia/Legacy enhanced the legend of Johnny Cash's Folsom Prison concert by releasing an expanded edition featuring an additional three tracks not included on the original pressing, as well as updated liner note reflections by Cash himself and Steve Earle. What really happened at Folsom Prison on January 13, 1968, however, has been long rumored but unheard by the general public, rarely even by Cash's most intimate friends. Welcome to the Legacy Edition of Johnny Cash At Folsom Prison, which corrects the imperfect record of the events that occurred on a prison's stage occupied by Johnny Cash, June Carter Cash, Carl Perkins, the Carter Family, the Statler Brothers and the Tennessee Three and edited into a single, seamless and overpowering live album that catapulted Cash into the top tier of American artists of his time, a lofty perch he commanded to the end of his days. That album was assembled from not one but two shows Cash and troupe performed that day, all but a pair of the issued cuts being from the first show. This new edition presents both concerts in their entirety on two CDs with an accompanying DVD of the entire second set, and a documentary DVD featuring warm reminiscences of the Man in Black by Cash's friends and fans (including Folsom prisoners who attended the show) along with moving insights from original Tennessee Two/Three member Marshall Grant (who gives a detailed account of his, Cash's and Luther Perkins's haphazard, rather comical efforts at trying to master their instruments enough to get on record-tuning proved to be an arduous task-and in the process stumbling onto the signature Cash sound), Marty Stuart (who also performs "The Hangman," the last song Cash wrote, with Stuart, four days before he died) and especially from daughter Rosanne.

There's a reason, though, that the first set was chosen in large part as the first official document of the Folsom Prison show. Simply put, it's a whole lot better show than the second set-more intense, better focused, higher spirited, you name it. Cash takes the second set at a looser, more relaxed pace, and without seeing the accompanying DVD a listener will feel a sense that things are meandering a bit from tune to tune. Part of this is due to technical problems Cash is trying to correct from the stage; part of it is due to him indeed working more deliberately and making more personal contact with the audience; and part of it is due to Cash simply having a good time clowning with the troupe. It doesn't help matters that Cash's friend Hugh Cherry, a Los Angeles disc jockey, is an annoying, shockingly uninformed host. He introduces Carl Perkins as "a man who wrote quite a number of the songs with which Elvis Presley gained international popularity, not the least of which was 'Blue Suede Shoes,'" when in fact "Blue Suede Shoes" is the only Perkins song Presley ever recorded, despite the close friendship between the two men. That's an error of fact and mostly inconsequential in the larger scheme of things; but in introducing the Statler Brothers, Cherry offers the offensive wisecrack that Roanoke, Virginia, which he mistakenly identifies as the Brothers' home town (they're from Staunton, where they have always and still reside), "hasn't got a great deal to be proud of, but the thing they're most proud of, I think, are these four gentlemen." Yet the version of "Cocaine Blues" on disc two is done with a fury matching the first set's treatment, and the near-seven-minute rendition of "John Henry's Hammer" is brought to vivid life by Cash's storytelling acumen and the band's spare, driving accompaniment behind him. "Give My Love to Rose," that wrenching account of a dying ex-con's final wishes to his long suffering family, is touchingly rendered, and is one of the best performances on either disc, but it doesn't feature June Carter Cash, as the track listings indicate. "Jackson" does feature June, but her and Johnny's vocals send the VU meters into the red, causing the voices to sound scratchy and distorted. Some of the best moments in the second show belong to Carl Perkins, who cuts out on a guitar solo on "Blue Suede Shoes" that is positively electrifying and revealing of Perkins's assimilation of some tricks learned from contemporary rock guitarists of the time; and to the Statler Brothers, who do a great job on the comical "You Can Have Your Kate and Edith Too," render their establishing hit "Flowers On the Wall" with infectious spirit, and close their mini-set with a beautifully harmonized treatment of "How Great Thou Art" in the southern quartet style.

So there's a bit of caveat emptor when it comes to this collection. But Johnny Cash fans will enjoy the full-on record of the event, and the inclusion of the DVDs makes a strong argument for this to be part of any essential Cash library. Any old way you package it, though, the opening set, in which Cash explores nearly all his influences, from gospel to folk to country to blues to gospel, and is given near flawless support by his band and the added muscle of Perkins's stinging electric guitar, is some kind of monument to a great artist, as his daughter Rosanne suggests in pinpointing Folsom Prison-released at the height of the Vietnam War and amidst so much tragedy and generational conflict in the U.S. (the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. in April and Robert F. Kennedy in June bookended the album's May release)-as "the hinge on which a whole door opened to something else. And also kind of quantified who he was as an artist. It was so important; I don't think you can overestimate the importance of it."

Looking back on Folsom Prison in his 1999 liner notes, Johnny himself gave his effort the most captivating endorsement of all: "There's some stuff in here I'm proud of..."

Kind of makes you want to hear it all over again, doesn't it?—by David McGee

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Derk Richardson
Logo Design: John Mendelsohn (
Website Design: Kieran McGee (
Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY;, Alicia Zappier (New York)
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024