The best music books provide not only a commentary on the music, but are also able to put you inside the music at the moment of creation. Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison: The Making of a Masterpiece by Michael Streissguth puts the reader squarely in this iconic moment in music history. Additionally, the book provides crucial context for not only the album Live at Folsom Prison, but also where it came in Johnny Cash’s career, and some of the reasons the country icon chose this difficult and potentially dangerous route to restake his claim in country music.
At the time, Cash’s career was in a bit of a trough due to his long-time substance abuse. These commercial considerations were clearly on Cash’s and his record label’s minds, as well as how a prison audience might provide a great atmosphere for a record. Holding a concert behind bars was not only a good story and press angle but also helped reinforce Cash’s “man in black” reputation — worn for “the prisoner who has long paid for his crime.” That Cash never really served much time — other than a few drunken nights in the clink — is one of music’s greatest self-serving myths and matters little.
The author also documents events leading up to the concert and explores the crossover commercial success of the album and its acceptance outside the closed world of country music, citing them as critical factors to the album’s place in history. These were due, in part, to the Sixties rock/radio underground and, particularly the “Nashville outsider” and iconoclast status that Cash has always carried. It’s Cash’s best-known and best-selling album and the one that revived his career; its longevity is astonishing.
Streissguth examines not only the roots of Johnny Cash, his music and career, but also the birth of Folsom Prison and the genesis of the American prison system and the ramifications it brought forth. Those parallels, intertwinings, and subsequent consequences for the men caught up in these societal shifts lie at the heart of the book.
Packed with photos from rehearsals, the entourage’s arrival at the prison, and the concert itself, it is the photography that really makes this book special — the hardcover edition is a beautifully designed book. It seems every important milestone for this project was captured in black and white. That in and of itself is a remarkable stroke of luck, since the possibility of the record becoming a blockbuster never entered Columbia’s mind. These photos, however, perfectly capture both the noir appeal of the record’s concept and Johnny Cash himself.
Whatever the reasons for that documentation, fans of Johnny Cash, country music and the album Live at Folsom Prison are the beneficiaries. Streissguth’s book is a wonder; Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison: The Making of a Masterpiece breaks down one of the seminal recordings, not just in country but in all of music, and, as the author concludes is, “a visceral social statement for the ages.”