Today’s the day in 1968 that Johnny Cash recorded “At Folsom Prison.”
It may be his most acclaimed album ever, but only came about as a last resort.
Cash had been a singing star since the mid 1950s, but by the late 60s he wasn’t exactly at his peak.
As band members recalled for a piece in Rolling Stone magazine, the Man in Black had tried some studio sessions, but perhaps due to his personal demons, they hadn’t gone well.
Someone suggested a live album as a way to release something new at a time when Cash didn’t have many new songs.
And since Cash had been doing concerts at prisons for years, they decided to record at Folsom Prison in California.
After all, one of Cash’s biggest hits was named for the place.
Virtually no one thought this record was going to be a hit.
The record company even thought associating their act with prisoners and outlaws would be bad for Cash’s image.
But producer Bob Johnston liked it, and so Cash headed to Folsom Prison with his band, his wife, singer June Carter Cash, and two opening acts: rockabilly legend Carl Perkins and country greats the Statler Brothers.
Many in the entourage found the setting pretty intimidating.
Cash’s bass player got nervous when he realized he’d brought a prop gun, part of the band’s normal shows, into the prison.
The record company photographer was on edge because he’d brought some illicit substances with him, at a time when he said he was already on probation.
Cash, on the other hand, rose to the occasion.
He’d never really done any time, but he had a knack for singing songs about outlaws and prison life as if he had.
And he chose a special set of songs to perform for the prisoners at Folsom, including a song written by one of the inmates.
The band played two sets that day, though the second was mostly just a backup.
Not that they needed one.
The prisoners had been asked not to applaud until Cash had introduced himself.
Once he did, they roared, and when the band tore into “Folsom Prison Blues,” it was clear that this was going to be a special concert.
The live album was a big hit with record buyers and with critics.
And the record’s success launched the second act of Cash’s career, where he made more hit records and hosted his own variety show on TV.
He also had a platform to speak out about improving conditions for prisoners in the United States, one of the causes that Cash spoke out about for years.
Not bad for a project that was really just a Plan B.
Musician Andy Thorn found a different kind of audience when he took his banjo outside.
While he played, a wild fox strolled over and sat in front of him to listen for a while before scampering off.
When Thorn stopped, the fox came back and sat in front of him again – as if to ask for an encore.
And it got that encore!
Johnny Cash’s ‘At Folsom Prison’ at 50: An Oral History (Rolling Stone)
The Fox and the Banjo (The Awesomer)