So, you’re a superstar country musician. Unfortunately, things have gotten a little out of hand lately with the drinking and the drugs, but you’ve turned a corner and are looking for a path to revitalize your career.
Your new record label has been giving you the cold shoulder… heck, who could blame them? You haven’t exactly been burning up the sales chart recently. Plus, its 1968 and the pop music scene is taking off like a rocket, dwarfing the country music record sales numbers.
To boot, you’ve parted ways with your old record producer and the label has hired this new guy, some rock-and-roller, to oversee the country music side of the house.
What to do? How about take a 10 year old song and an even older idea, round up the wife and some friends and go make a couple of live records inside the gates of two of America’s most notorious prisons with guards and inmates as an audience!
Released in 1968 and 1969 Johnny Cash’s At Folsom Prison and At San Quentin were a gamble (to say the least), but these kinds of performances were old hat to Cash, he’d performed in several in the 50s after the initial success of Folsom Prison Blues.
Cash had been receiving letters from prisoners for well over a decade urging him to play their prisons. He pitched the idea to the new head of country music at Columbia Music, Bob Johnston, who enthusiastically gave the green light.
The performance was offered to both locations; Folsom, northeast of Sacramento and San Quentin near San Francisco. Folsom was the first to respond and the rest, as they say, is history.
So, did the plan work? Yup. Even with little backing from Columbia, At Folsom Prison was a number one country record and At San Quentin went to number one on both the country and pop charts. The success also prompted ABC to give Cash his own weekly variety show making him one of the biggest stars on the scene and a considerably forceful kingmaker for other acts.
For my money, At Folsom Prison is the more interesting of the two with considerable on stage banter between the performer and crowd, some Shel Silverstein tunes and starstruck guard interactions. There’s also an emotion present in At Folsom Prison; a kind of “there but for the grace of God go I” feeling…