Music

"I Said, 'I Shot A Man In Reno.' Hello? Anyone?"

Johnny Cash inside Folsom Prison in 1964

hide captionJohnny Cash: A new edition of a classic album has more to say about his performances at Folsom Prison than you may want to hear.

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As eagerly as music nerds await the release of collections like Johnny Cash's brand-new, probably-under-your-holiday-shrubbery-of-choice At Folsom Prison Legacy Edition, there's always a very real risk involved of shattering 40 years' worth of illusions. It's the same reason you don't look under the hood of a classic car you've always lusted after or take a gander at the inside of a sausage factory: sometimes it's just better to close your eyes and hang on to the myth.

That can be especially true of an album like At Folsom Prison, which for all its unimpeachable musical virtues owed much of its power to the combination of what was happening backstage (Cash's own career tailspin, which the original release effectively reversed) and in front of it (the release-valve rowdiness of the prison audience). But things look a little different once you open your eyes to a warts-and-all view of history. It turns out, there are warts. Let's look at some of the more surprising revelations to be found on the new two-CD/one-DVD set, which officially makes available the undoctored entirety of both concerts that Folsom hosted on January 13, 1968.

Spontaneity, sort of, after the jump...

The prisoners were directed to respond a certain way. Acting as emcee for the shows, L.A. radio personality Hugh Cherry not only encouraged them to whoop it up, he told them when to do so: "If you hear something you like, we want you to respond. We want you to react in whatever manner you're motivated to do. If you like it, you let us know." He's also specifically responsible for orchestrating the thrilling start of the original album, when the singer walks out of silence to declare "Hello, I'm Johnny Cash" and the crowd explodes. That moment? Manufactured.

They still didn't. The prisoners enthusiastically cheering the line "I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die" during the morning show is one of those iconic moments in pop/rock music history around which people have built entire belief systems, like Dylan getting booed at Newport when he went electric. Which is why it's so strange to hear the same line go by without a peep during the second show. It's a small difference, but hearing the afternoon crowd politely let the line go by can change your appreciation of everything you thought the album was.

It's an album, not a sociological document. As per the above, Cherry made it perfectly clear before both shows that Cash was recording an album, emphasizing the point so much that it starts to seem like the concerts were staged less for the inmates than for the microphones. It's hard to hear At Folsom Prison as a snapshot of prisoners given a rare opportunity to let loose when you can hear them being told to play the part of prisoners given a rare opportunity to let loose. And when Cash and company do another runthrough of "Greystone Chapel" immediately after the one that was to have ended the second concert, you can hear them more or less forgetting about the audience in their quest to make sure they got a decent take of the song.

Glen Sherley wasn't beaten up as soon as the show was over. As anyone familiar with Folsom knows, Sherley was a prisoner who wrote "Greystone Chapel," which Cash performed at the end of both shows. His surname was a woman's name, his song was about finding peace in religion and he was singled out like a teacher's pet by the Man In Black in front of the rest of the inmates. You'd think that sort of thing would put a man at risk of a serious beatdown. But while it doesn't delve into the immediate aftermath of the show, the DVD does elaborate on Sherley's story from Folsom forward. As it turns out, he became something of an in-house celebrity, continuing to write and sing his songs until Cash helped arrange his release. At which point he got a beatdown from the outside world. I guess that part's not much of a surprise, unfortunately.

Cash wasn't exactly winging it up there. Setting notwithstanding, there's a lot of freewheeling humor on Folsom, with jokes about the drinking water running off of guitarist Luther Perkins's boot, the "Dirty minds!" admonishment during a particularly raunchy passage in "The Legend Of John Henry's Hammer" and the immortal exchange where Cash tells June Carter "I like to watch you talk," only to have her fire back with "I'm talking with my mouth!" But what seemed like it was off-the-cuff on the original album is revealed to be schtick when you listen to both shows. The prisoners got what was essentially a scripted show, which Cherry more or less admits as much at the start, but the fact that Cash so clumsily forces the jokes into the second performance indicates that he wasn't a particularly deft improviser.

Cash was only human. His legend looms larger than life and will forevermore, but the rumors that the second of his two shows was inferior are true. That much becomes clear starting around "John Henry's Hammer," which proceeds to fall apart almost completely, and by the time he gets to "Jackson," Carter comes out and basically says that she's there to save the show on account of his voice being shot. From that point on, Cash is playing catch-up until the show's over. If, as the story goes, Cash essentially bet everything on At Folsom Prison reviving his career fortunes, then comparing the two concerts, recorded three hours apart, shows just how razor-thin his margin of error truly was.

You still need the new set. Forget history. You don't care about history. Without the Legacy Edition, you miss out on Cash and Carter's flirty, fiery duets on "I Got A Woman" and "Long-Legged Guitar Pickin' Man," the Statler Brothers' goofily cornpone "You Can't Have Your Kate And Edith, Too" and Carl Perkins casually tossing off "The Old Spinning Wheel" and then charging hard on "Matchbox." After an excellent, expanded 1999 reissue, it was hard to imagine that this particular well hadn't run dry by now. But after 40 years, At Folsom Prison only holds up within its full context but still has a trick or two up its sleeve. Which is probably the most surprising revelation of all.

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