As far as live music legends go, this is one of the big ones.
Johnny Cash at one of the country’s first maximum security prisons singing songs about shooting a man in Reno “just to watch him die” to folks that have probably acted comparably. It’s the “Man in Black” singing songs that befit his title: dark and macabre.
But the scariest part is he has every one of those locked up convicts in the palm of his hand. At Folsom Prison marks a major point in Cash’s career where he shifted from popular country star to unstoppable cultural trope. That’s also what we’re inadvertently getting a glimpse of in the album cover’s photograph.
At the time of the cover photo, we catch Johnny Cash at a point in his career where he’s seen his share of ups and downs, from the blossoming of his career and family life to the turmoils caused by addiction, divorce, and a Depression-era childhood. From all of his experience, he looks at the camera with a steady expression of calm control. A slight trickle of sweat runs down his face despite his stage-coiffed pompadour. Cash is mid-verse wearing a guitar strap on-stage – he’s at work. His music is his profession, and he has total control of it.
The first sample track is one of Cash’s most famous, as well as the song synonymous with the album’s name and venue. (Oddly enough, the song was a Top Five hit 12 years prior to At Folsom Prison and Cash had written in 2 years before that.)
In the proper country music vein, Cash leads a narrative of violence, regret, and lonesome as a cautionary tale. What makes this track stand out amidst other examples of the time is the audience of convicts, who just happen to eat up every word that’s sung. Standing alone, the chugga-chugga rhythm serves as a necessary pick-me-up to a depressing song, but with the Folsom Prison audience, the tune becomes the energetic swan song of hundreds of criminals. From the front cover, Johnny Cash looks down at the camera and we can see the humble lucidity of this power.
In contrast to the flexed muscles of the first track, this second sample is more playful and jovial, though just as surprisingly powerful. The title says it all: “Flushed from the Bathroom of Your Heart”. This is bathroom humor at its most innocent form of poop jokes. The most incredible fact is that Johnny is feeding this type of juvenile and light-hearted humor to hardened criminals, who happen to be loving every minute of it.
Looking at Cash’s face on the front cover, you realize how masterful he is of country music – the music of the salt-of-the-earth types. Through the craft of songwriting and the sheer charisma of his booming baritone, Johnny Cash seems to have earned his right as one the the music world’s best performers.
The album art for At Folsom Prison illustrates this in a way that mirrors Johnny’s usual demeanor – with humility. With a downward stare, Cash doesn’t look menacing or imposing, but he just seems candid and comfortable. Above all, he seems confident, not only in his abilities as an entertainer but in his role as a voice to the people. And when those people are society’s violent criminals, you need a lot of confidence to tell a poop joke.
Artist: Johnny Cash
Album: Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison
Tracklist & Review (Allmusic)