Even though I was not yet born, 1968 remains my favorite year for American music. There were two historic concerts that year, Johnn Cash playing and recording live at Folsom Prison in January and Elvis Presley's "68 Comeback Special" aired on NBC in December of 1968.
Johnny Cash gave one of his greatest performances at Folsom Prison, January 13, 1968. The country was experiencing a time of unrest (Vietnam, Civil Rights movement, etc). For Johnny Cash personally, he was finally able to kick his drug habit with the help of his new wife, June Carter. In reading various excerpts from him, it seems that he came to embrace the gospel around this time period, he certainly made a clear profession of faith many times in subsequent years, right up until his death in 2003. There was really no good reason to play a concert in a dangerous prison and Cash's producers weren't happy he wanted to do so. Even as publicity stunts go, playing Folsom made little sense as most of Cash's fans by 1968 were straight-laced church goers, especially with his growing connection to the gospel-singing Carter family. Playing a prison was a real risk professionally and personally for Cash.
Folsom Prison is California's second oldest prison, constructed in 1878. It was well known for it's harsh conditions, that's what made Cash reference it in his 1956 writing of "Folsom Prison Blues", easily Cash's most famous and best-selling song. While Cash had some relatively minor run-in's with the law, that song became an underground hit in prisons across the country striking a chord with men serving prison time. Many prisoners thought Cash was writing the song as a convict himself, when in fact he was only arrested once (for drug possession) and served just a day or two in a cell. Still, Cash had a certain compassion for people in prison and decided to try and serve them in some way by doing the concert in the Folsom Prison cafeteria in 1968.
I have listened to the album hundreds of times. It's a bold statement, but it might be my favorite album ever. It contains his best recorded performances for many of his usual concert songs like "Folsom Prison Blues", "I still Miss Someone", and "Give My Love to Rose". The album also contains unique recordings, hard if not impossible to find anywhere else, like "Cocaine Blues" and "25 Minutes to go". Finally, I think The Folsom Prison album has the best recording of "Jackson" ever done. Of course, this is a duet with June Carter, who in my opinion isn't a very good singer, but in this recording she does a splendid job on "Jackson".
The likes of Johnny Cash, the man in black, will not likely ever be seen again and this particular album is his best recording. I recommend viewing the 2005 depiction of Johnny Cash's pre-1968 life, "Walk the Line". The respective performances of Joaquin Phoenix (as Cash) and Reese Witherspoon (as June Carter) have been widely and accurately acclaimed. My only beef with the movie is the very slighting reference to Cash's conversion to Christianity. Also, the film ends with his Folsom Prison performance in 1968 yet Cash performed extensively for the next 35 years and became more vocal about his faith in Christ as the years progressed. Apparently his life wasn't as interesting to Hollywood when the infidelity and drugs stopped?
Johnny Cash was an American folk-country-blues genius. I'm going to listen to "Dirty Old Egg-Suckin' Dog" now....