Editor’s Note: The Albumism staff has selected what we believe to be the 50 Greatest Live Albums of All Time, representing a varied cross-section of genres, styles and time periods. Click “Next Album” below to explore each album or view the full album index here.
JOHNNY CASH | At Folsom Prison
Selected by Justin Chadwick
“Now, the important thing is that you enjoy yourselves, and respond, because you are a part of the album,” the renowned country radio disc jockey Hugh Cherry encourages the cafeteria room full of inmates at the beginning of the At Folsom Prison deluxe edition. “You are a very, very important part, and if you hear something you like, react in kind.”
Suffice to say that Johnny Cash and his backing band The Tennessee Three offered their captive audience (no pun intended) plenty of songs to like and react to during their January 13, 1968 concert held at the Northern California penitentiary. After brief opening entries from Carl Perkins and The Statler Brothers, the main attraction surfaces on stage, and with a simple salutation “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash,” the assembled crowd awakens as the legendary “Man in Black” launches into, appropriately enough, the captivating chug of “Folsom Prison Blues,” replete with his infamous, rebellious refrain “I shot a man in Reno / just to watch him die.”
Cash and his troupe are in flawless form throughout, as they rip through his signature compositions “I Still Miss Someone,” “Cocaine Blues,” “Orange Blossom Special” and the June Carter Cash supported “Jackson.” But to Cherry’s point, the most compelling component of this recording is the response of the crowd, who, at least for an hour or so, were able to indulge their ears and liberate their souls in the redemptive power of song.
Directly expressing—or even just indirectly evoking—genuine empathy for the circumstances of the incarcerated among us can be a tricky proposition. But to Cash’s credit, his performance here acknowledges the prisoners’ humanity and right to be entertained. And in doing so, he offers the audience on that day at least a modicum of dignity and much-needed respite from their adversity.