Fifty years ago Johnny Cash strode into Folsom State Prison in Represa, California, behind a truckload of recording equipment and emerged with an eternal album. The union of Cash and his hungry, jailhouse audience communicated a startling authenticity, a singular moment that remains elusive to musicians who would try to recreate it. It was all at once an unflinching glimpse of prison life, a showcase for the country legend’s panther swagger, and a communion of the disenfranchised during a decade concerned with social justice.
And it marked a renaissance in Cash’s life and career. The album At Folsom Prison, released months after the January 13th, 1968 appearance, quickly went gold and opened doors to bigger concert dates and his own network television show, not to mention his next prison album, At San Quentin (1969), whose sales edged out Folsom‘s but with a formula first distilled in 1968. He reined in his destructive amphetamine abuse and became a hero of the displaced, using his newly found international stardom to speak out on prison reform and help secure the release of prisoners such as Glen Sherley who became the troubled supporting actor of the Folsom drama when he joined Cash’s show as a featured performer only to backslide into his stubborn outlaw ways.
Folsom was just a day in Cash’s life, but as James Joyce wrote, “In the particular is contained the universal.” Daughter Rosanne Cash, in this never-before-published interview from 2008 for the documentary film Johnny Cash At Folsom Prison (Bestor Cram, dir.) reluctantly presents the wide-angle view of her father that Folsom provides, revealing a rare portrait of the Man in Black. Though just a teenager in the late 1960s, she was around him often in the years immediately following Folsom, as he settled down in Nashville with his new wife June Carter, whom he had married after divorcing Rosanne’s mother Vivian days before the Folsom show. Rosanne, a four-time Grammy award winner, followed her father into the music business, but with one eye trained on the lessons of Folsom.
When you asked me to do this interview I didn’t want to. I wasn’t inclined to do it for several reasons: my memories of Folsom are after the fact. I was only 12 years old when the concert happened. I don’t remember the circumstances around the planning of it or it happening. The knowledge of it went in by osmosis later on. And also I’m not very interested in participating in the posthumous version of my dad’s career. I don’t think I have any place in it. But you asked me to think about it, and I was going to say no. And, literally, the night after we talked about this, I went to bed and my window was open. And at 4:00 in the morning out of nowhere a car goes by with music blasting out of it: “I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die.” So my dad’s voice boomed into my bedroom on that one line, and then the car was gone. And I immediately thought, “I’d better say yes to this!”
So is there a way to look at the Folsom show and the album without feeding the myth?
You could be a musicologist and just pare it down to its essential nature as a record, a live record. But you can’t separate it from the watershed moment it was in his life and in his career. That was the hinge in which a whole door opened to something else, and also kind of quantified who he was as an artist. I don’t think you can underestimate or overestimate the importance of it.
He had an impulse to do it. And he had to go to bat. He had to fight people to do it and that’s in the nature of a great artist, to see something where other people don’t see it. I don’t think he knew that it would be as successful as it was, but I think he knew it was important to do.
What comes to mind when you hear the album?
Partly what comes to mind is how scary my dad was sometimes. He could be very dark and scary and not very good at impulse control, to put it mildly. So some of that comes up and then his essential nature as an artist – the risk-taking and the rawness and the willingness to put all of the emotion, dark or light, on the line, nothing held back. It’s just so admirable. I remember an English teacher that I kind of had a crush on. One day he invited us all to bring in records the next week. And somebody in the class, just to kind of yank me a little bit, said, “What about Johnny Cash records?” The teacher said, “Bring in Folsom or San Quentin, but the rest of is not really worth listening to.” And I stopped liking him at that moment. My crush disappeared like that.
Where do you think Folsom rests among the pantheon of great 1960s albums, like Sgt. Pepper’s, Are You Experienced?, Pet Sounds?
They were each defining moments. They were completely original no matter if they contained derivative songs, they were still completely original recordings. They defined the artist, and they kind of blew open the consciousness of the time.
Folsom tapped into the pure rebellion of the times and just that impulse to overthrow, to change things, to bump up against authority in all of its guises. That’s what the Sixties felt like to me. There was a revolution going on, and Folsom was part of the revolution.
Is Folsom a record that your father would hark back to in conversation?
No, he wouldn’t do that. He was always a guy who was looking forward – what’s next, what am I going to do next? He wouldn’t sit and wax nostalgic about his past records.
I mean he was an artist the same way that Matisse was an artist where he started out with the line drawings and ended up with the jazz dancers in his seventies. That’s an artist’s life. It has an arc and a development and unexpected twists and turns and revelations and it doesn’t stop until the very end. That’s a real artist. And that’s who he was. So he wasn’t 10, 20 years later looking back at Folsom going, “God, I’ve got to beat Folsom.” There’s just no way.
Would you describe the turning point in his life and career that Folsom represented?
Well, a lot of what I understood about what was happening with him personally and artistically in the 1960s, I understood intuitively. No one sat me down and went, “Hey, he’s on drugs, and now he’s not on drugs.” Or, “He’s going to do this record at a prison and things are going to be good for a while.” I didn’t get any of that.
So my intuitive take on the time around Folsom is paradoxical, given what the subject matter was: It was the moment that he came into the light. It’s a paradox, but it’s true. When I think about my dad’s life and I think about that moment, that’s when there’s a kind of force, when he embodied who he really was. And that’s light, no matter how much darkness is in it.
Tell me about the good years after Folsom.
He got straight in the late Sixties and he was straight for several years after that. That was a good time. He got really healthy. And that was also when I started traveling with him, so I kind of got the best of him right then. It was great. I learned how to stay at a Four Seasons and order a lot of room service.
He was just so magnanimous during that time. I remember he would play Lake Tahoe regularly, and I remember going with him with my stepsister, Rosie, who was three years younger than me. And I was 18, 19 years old, and he would give us money to go gamble even though we were far underage! We’d lose it all and go back to him and he’d say, “How did you do?” I’d say, “We lost it all at the blackjack tables!” And he’d just pull out his wallet and he’d start giving us hundreds again.
When you were with your father then, do you recall his growing interest in helping prisoners win parole?
I remember Glen Sherley. He’s really the only one that I remember. I was a kid. I didn’t have any real understanding about the psyche of someone like him. Honestly, I thought that my dad thought that he had more talent than I thought he did. I wasn’t really moved by what I heard.
I didn’t get how my dad let all of these people come to him. People would come backstage and audition for him so that he could call up somebody from the record label. I mean he was like this guru and I just looked at it aghast like, “This is going to take him down.”
I think that honestly my dad had an inflated sense of his own power about his ability to change some of these men’s lives, and I think it got him into trouble. I think that he went into territory he probably shouldn’t have, emotional territory. You can’t hasten someone else’s recovery or enlightenment and I think that my dad had a sense of maybe he could and it didn’t turn out well all the time. And I think dad eventually felt imprisoned by those relationships.
I mean, how much can you get from one guy? As a young man and a middle-aged man, the only time I saw him cry was at the end of a tour when there had been so much of that, so many demands made on him, so many people. And he just kind of snapped. It was too much.
Then by the late 1970s he stopped playing prisons.
Well, I think he stopped going to prisons because it was just too much. It was a burden. The psychic weight alone of that much pain and trouble and then making yourself accessible to it, and even thinking you could have the power to change some of it. Nobody can do that. And, also, maybe also it was artistically played out. He couldn’t keep doing that.
He was so extraordinarily famous during those several years that his life was so hard because of it. If we wanted to go to a movie, he would sometimes rent the theater. If we wanted to go skating, I remember him renting the skating rink. He could not leave his house without being accosted. And I never saw him being anything less than polite and kind to people. I couldn’t have done it. I don’t know anybody who could.
But I think for a while he courted that attention.
See, this is what I resist. This is why I don’t do this stuff and talk in interviews and participate in this kind of lionization and the myth-making about my dad because that very thing was so destructive to him. The projections just keep piling up. It’s not just the prisoners. It’s the downtrodden, wherever they live. And people who were seeming to turn it into a religion and making him less than human.
These people who come up to me all the time to tell me about my father, or to tell me that I’m not a good American and my father was a good American, or that I’m not this and my father was that. It’s just bizarrely inhuman and unfair. He was a real man with grave faults and great genius and beauty in him. But he wasn’t this guy who could save you or anyone else.
If we could get back for a moment to the album . . .
Are there performances on that album that in your mind that stand out?
“Cocaine Blues” stands out in my head. That seemed to me to be the epitome of rebellion. I loved that. “Early one morning, while making the rounds…” Just loved it. I think it was my favorite cut off the whole record. And you know what’s interesting is it’s this epic journey of drug-fueled crime and at the end he goes, “Let that cocaine be.” Leave it alone!
“Give My Love to Rose” is on the album.
My father when he would call my mother from the road he would say, “Give my love to Rosanne.” So I think that’s probably where it came from. I never asked him outright. So many people over the years have said to me, “Oh, well, that song obviously refers to you,” that I just kind of accepted it. I never even asked him. So many things you never ask.
On the album you experience his ability to sense the mood of an audience and then work with that mood.
He had an extraordinary ability to sense the particular chemistry of an audience and plug right into it. [Snaps fingers.] That was one of his great gifts. He was a consummate performer in that way.
He was his best self onstage. He took his problems to the stage and he worked a lot of them out onstage. He had this kind of showmanship and kind generosity of spirit and good natured-ness coupled with this absolute lack of need to please anyone, but to just do what he did to the best of his ability. It was such an odd combination.
How do you think Folsom fed your father’s public image?
Well, Folsom probably solidified the image of my dad as a rebel who was outside the realm of polite society. He had done it before by getting arrested and by the drug use and trashing hotel rooms and all of the behavior that went along with rebellion. Then he kind of transformed it into art. And that’s when it really worked. It wasn’t hurting anybody, and it was good.
It’s interesting to look at all of the press surrounding that album in 1968 and even the record company’s own marketing efforts, suggesting that maybe this guy had done hard time in prison. I wonder if it all created a persona that your father felt like he had to fulfill?
Well, that part of it turned out to be not so good for my family. For me to spend years and still saying, “No, my dad was never in prison.” For a while, when I was a kid, I even thought he did. I remember thinking, “Did he go to prison?” Reading some of this stuff and thinking, “When did that happen? Did my mom keep it a secret from us?” And then realizing that it was part of this mythmaking thing. That made me angry. I didn’t want to have to disavow that for the rest of my life, which I’ll continue doing. But at some point he started saying it, too. “Never been in prison. Only been thrown in jail overnight twice.” But if the marketing machine led people to believe that, you know, I’m sure it helped at the time.
Your father gave you a list of 100 essential country songs when you were first getting into the business. Was “Folsom Prison Blues” on the list?
“Folsom” was not on the list. “I Walk the Line” was on the list.But when he wrote that list I don’t think he was far enough removed from the Folsom concert to know that it should be on the list. If he had made the list at the end of his life I think “Folsom” would have been on it. It’s not as great of a song as “I Walk the Line,” but the Folsom album represents the quintessential Johnny Cash at that moment in his life. There is nothing you can compare it to.