The Beatles had the album Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, Miles Davis had Bitches Brew, the Band had Music From Big Pink, on so on — these were seminal studio albums that impacted the lives of millions. Johnny Cash's magnum opus from 1968, however, was recorded live in a rundown prison. How's that for bad ass? In a decade marked by extreme events and attitudes — unrest on college campuses and in prisons around the USA — the recording of Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison was news. As a raw, harrowing document, the album was endorsed heartily by Rolling Stone, and Cash went from a somewhat popular country singer to cultural icon, embraced by both the mainstream and counterculture media after its release. In 1969, ABC-TV offered Cash his own show.
To be fair, Cash had always been ahead of the curve. One of the original 1950s Sun Records gang (Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, etc.), Cash's music was a wonderful mongrelization of country and folk music, rockabilly, blues, and pop. And as a friend of Bob Dylan's, Cash recorded the Zim's songs in the early '60s, long before it was a hip/trendy thing to do. Some vilified Cash for speaking out against the Vietnam War and for Native American rights — the Klan even started a rumor that Cash's first wife, who was of Italian descent, was in reality African-American. But the man in black wouldn't back down from anyone.
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Long before gangsta rap, Cash sang one of the meanest lines in pop music history. The song "Folsom Prison Blues" has the immortal couplet, "When I was just a baby, my mama told me, 'Son, always be a good boy, don't ever play with guns'/But I shot a man in Reno/Just to watch him die." The bastard didn't diss him; the narrator just wanted to see his life ebb away. The new Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison: Legacy Edition box set commemorates the 40th anniversary of the original album with a boss expanded omnibus. Two CDs, with a total of 31 previously unreleased tracks and a DVD doc, includes interviews with daughter Rosanne Cash, peer Merle Haggard, and former Folsom inmates. Talk about your historical document — besides, much of the music is primo, though unpolished, Cash.