In 1968, it wasn’t standard procedure for a musician to release a live album. It definitely wasn’t the norm to book a show in a prison, playing to inmates instead of a paying audience.
Then again, Johnny Cash never was one to follow someone else’s rules as he walked the line.
The format, the setting and, of course, the music is why, 50 years after the release of “At Folsom Prison,” the album is considered a classic. And it’s why local Cash tribute band the Johnny Folsom 4 plans to re-create the album’s recording – announcements, banter, mess-ups and all – Jan. 27 at the Haw River Ballroom in Saxapahaw.
At a rehearsal earlier this month, the Raleigh-based Johnny Folsom 4 practiced some songs from the set, working through tempo changes and listening carefully to parts of the “At Folsom Prison” album where Cash forgets a lyric, someone makes a flub on an instrumental part, or inmates react to the show. Mistakes like that would get edited out of today’s live albums, but they stayed put on “At Folsom Prison.”
“That’s the beauty of it, though,” David Gresham on Telecaster guitar observed to his bandmates. They included David Burney on lead vocals and guitar (the Man in Black, in other words), Randal Benefield on drums and Tom Mills on bass, along with Eleanor Jones on vocals as June Carter Cash. They nodded in agreement as he played back one flub via his smartphone.
You’ve probably seen photos from the 1968 performance inside California’s Folsom State Prison. Cash, dressed in a black suit and loose-collared white shirt, looking lean and alert after starting to surmount a struggle with drug abuse, plays his guitar while perched on a white stool at the edge of a stage. Only a lip a few inches high separates him from the inmates, and he places a foot on this boundary, almost as if to declare there’s no barrier at all.
In one iconic shot, he leans over the edge to shake hands with an inmate in the front row. The album’s cover image shows a close-up of Cash’s face as he sings into a microphone, his expression calm as two rivulets of sweat roll down under a sideburn.
While the Johnny Folsom 4 plans to replicate the performance as closely as possible, and will certainly dress the part, as they do at all of their shows, they’re not – and never have been – out to win a lookalike contest. (Burney confessed to dyeing his salt-and-pepper hair black once, long ago, but said he “just hated it” and shaved it off.)
“We didn’t start it to be a tribute band. We started it to play his music,” Burney said. “Listen, nobody sounds like Johnny Cash, that’s why he’s Johnny Cash. But of the people that I’ve heard who do try to do a tribute to him, I don’t think anybody gets closer than we do. I don’t mean to sound too arrogant, but I think we get real close. And that’s what is more important to us, is to do that.”
And “close” is what the band aims for, rather than “exact,” according to Benefield.
“We’re not trying as a band anymore to sound exactly like (Cash). We do our own thing really a lot,” he said, pointing to changes in key and tempo, and sometimes adding in an instrumental solo that Cash and the Tennessee Three didn’t do. “It’s close, but it’s not like an exact replica of the song.”
Added Burney: “We’re not interested at all in mimicking what he did. We’re also not trying to make something brand new of it. But sometimes it’s our interpretation, and it’s close enough that it feels right. … It still honors his sound.”
Take it from the top
To honor “At Folsom Prison” at the Haw River Ballroom show, the set list will kick off with Raleigh communications strategist and musician Billy Warden providing a rendition of the introduction from emcee Hugh Cherry, “a radio newsman from Los Angeles,” who reminds the inmates that “this is a recording session” and encourages them to “enjoy themselves and respond.”
Before Cash appears, the inmates hear a song from Carl Perkins (embodied at this show by local guitarist Steve Howell), and then the Statler Brothers (at this show, the Taters, a roots-pop band from Richmond). Just as Cherry did in Folsom State Prison, the crowd will be asked – for recording purposes – to hold their applause until they hear those four magical words: “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash.”
In 1968, once those formalities were dispensed with, things got loose. And something magical happened as the tape rolled.
“He’s off the cuff. And then you hear that energy from the prisoners, which I think is still as fresh now as it was in ’68,” said Burney.
While plenty of familiar songs made Cash’s set list – like “I Still Miss Someone,” “Cocaine Blues” and “The Long Black Veil” – some notable ones were left off. (Don’t worry – after wrapping up the “At Folsom Prison” set, the Johnny Folsom 4 plans a second set with more favorites they’ve honed over a decade of playing across the Triangle and beyond.)
“This is him playing for the prisoners. He didn’t play ‘Ring of Fire,’ he didn’t even play ‘Walk the Line’ …,” Burney pointed out. “He wanted to connect with them. He wanted to show them he knew what it felt like.”
Reading the crowd
Starting off with “Folsom Prison Blues” was an obvious choice, but surely “Dark as a Dungeon,” “Send a Picture of Mother,” and “Green, Green Grass of Home” struck a chord as well.
“Whether he was playing to a Native American tribe in the poorest county in the country, or whether he was playing to prisons or whether he was playing Madison Square Garden or Newport Folk Festival, or wherever he was playing,” Burney said, “he read that crowd and he played for them.”
The Folsom performance wasn’t Cash’s first show in a prison, but it was the first one he recorded for an album.
Cash got interested in prisons and prison reform after watching a film set in Folsom Prison while serving in the Air Force in the early 1950s. Columbia Records didn’t see much value in his performance Jan. 13, 1968, at the California prison. Without support, the album, released in May, started out with tepid sales. But as good reviews rolled in and fans heard the songs, it steadily gained traction on both country and pop charts, and the album went gold after six months.
More important, Cash’s flagging career was placed back on the road to legend status. All because he had an idea of how to capture some musical magic on record, and he didn’t change his vision just because it was an unconventional type of record for an unconventional type of audience.
“Johnny wanted to do a live record,” Gresham said. “Johnny knew the kind of energy — because he’d been doing prisons, he knew it was going to be something spectacular to capture on tape.”
Stacy Chandler is a Triangle-based writer. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Who: Johnny Folsom 4 re-creating Johnny Cash’s “At Folsom Prison” album in its 50th anniversary
When: 8 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 27. Doors open at 7 p.m.
Where: Haw River Ballroom, 1711 Saxapahaw-Bethlehem Church Road, Saxapahaw
Tickets: $12 advance, $15 door
Info: 336-525-2314 or hawriverballroom.com/