By filtering the career of Johnny Cash through the prism of his legendary 1968 album at Folsom Prison, author Michael Streissguth gambles on a premise -- that without this successful leap of faith, Cash would have been just another country also-ran, perhaps ending his life as an Andy Williams all-star at Branson.
Risk taken, the author forges ahead, sculpting his case craftily with a wealth of entertaining anecdotes, documentation, photos and sure-handed historical perspective of the decade of change.
There is no shortage of recordings or musings on the Man in Black. He was the original outlaw -- crashing country music's staid bastions, beginning with Sam Phillips' Sun Records, then building a bridge to folk and topical music that was the backdrop of social change in the '60s. He befriended Bob Dylan and appeared at the Newport Folk Festival -- a stage alien to country musicians in those days.
Cash also made a career of confronting his own jailers. No saint, his obsession with prison life was stoked by firsthand experience, though not to the threshold of badness postulated in the media buzz of the late '60s.
Cash owned the early part of the '60s with such huge hits as "Ring of Fire" and "I Walk the Line." He also saw his career practically flat-line as the decade wore on.
To muddy the success story, demon substances had stained Cash with a reputation as an unstable customer. There were missed concerts and zombie-like performances. Also, he was considered an angry outsider in the country status-quo, and his contempt for the Nashville elite boiled over with the notorious footlights-smashing incident at the Grand Ole Opry in 1965.
By the time the idea for a prison recording was hatched, Cash was ripe for the task at hand. Recording an album behind prison walls -- yet alone California's medieval Folsom -- was not a popular idea with the movers and shakers of Columbia Records. Despite repeated failures to break this mind-set, Cash eventually hit pay dirt with an executive named Bob Johnston.
Though Cash had played the big house before, recording in one presented a devilish set of challenges, not the least of which was technical. At Folsom, the studio was a murky steel-and-mortar cafeteria. And the audience, starved of humanity and steeped in institutional violence, was a question mark.
On a gray day in January 1968, behind gray walls and barbed wire, nagging doubts serendipitously dissolved with, "Hello, I'm Johnny Cash," punctuated by the boom-chicka-boom of the Tennessee Three.
The audience -- captive and captivated -- exploded. Cash and entourage -- including Carl Perkins, the Statler Brothers and June Carter Cash -- could do no wrong. Their performance was raw and honest, the audience the star, and Cash, a Pied Piper, serenaded this hardened gathering with hardscrabble ballads of hard luck: "Busted," "Cocaine Blues," "The Long Black Veil," "Dark as a Dungeon" and "Greystone Chapel."
In a 1999 interview, Cash summoned up the magic of the moment:
"Let it blow. We are in the timeless now. There is no calendar inside the cafeteria today." Of legend, too, is born myth. The author lets us in on an album secret. One of the emotional send-offs is the fever-pitch chorus of inmate rebel yells reacting to, "I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die," the bloody mea culpa to Cash's 1955 hit, "Folsom Prison Blues." The outburst was a bit of inspired editing, manufactured in spite of a show hardly lacking in audience enthusiasm.
That "Folsom" put platinum in the bank mystified the corporate types at Columbia., who held out little hope Cash's hunch would pay off, and promoted the album thusly. After all, this was the height of psychedelia and carefully clever studio constructs of the Beatles, Stones and Beach Boys, music winning over the vanguard of the Baby Boom generation.
But "Folsom" was a hit in long and sustained way.
This 1968 Village Voice review by Richard Goldstein makes an attempt:
"Cash's voice is as thick and gritty as ever, but filled with the kind of emotionalism you seldom find in rock (for all the hue and cry about passionate intensity, white pop singers don't often let go, do they?). His songs are simple and sentimental, his message clear. The feeling of hopelessness -- even amid the cheers and whistles -- is overwhelming. You come away drained, as the record fades out to the sound of men booing their warden, and a guard's gentle, but deadly warning, "Easy now." Talk about magical mystery tours.
"Folsom" mainlined adrenaline to Cash's career. It spawned the hugely popular San Quentin album and the chart-topping "A Boy Named Sue," the hit TV show of the early '70s and sellout concerts at the country's biggest venues.
The album's celebrity also came with a side show, a public debate on prison reform. In 1972, Cash and two men paroled with his help, Harland Sanders and Glen Sherley, testified before a Senate subcommittee. Sherley, who wrote "Greystone Chapel" and was an inmate at Folsom during the show, would travel with Cash and record his own album. He failed to grasp life on the outside, though, and took his own life with a gun.
Streissguth makes a plausible case for the milestone of this singular event. Still, there is no denying the gravitational tug of a true star of Cash's magnitude. If "Folsom" had never happened, the sheer tenacity and talent of Cash would have prevailed.
It's impossible to imagine a Cash stranded in time, playing oldies shows in Branson, especially on the density of what may be the magnum opus of his life -- the brilliant American Recordings series produced by Rick Rubin, the end flourish of a notable life.
Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison
The Making of a Masterpiece
By Michael Streissguth
Da Capo Press, 180 pages, $24
Randy Rodda is a city editor and country music reviewer at The News.