October 13th, 2008
09:38 AM ET

Return to 'Folsom Prison'

“OK, we’re ready to do the record session. Are you ready?” asks Hugh Cherry, the Los Angeles broadcaster handling the announcing duties at Johnny Cash’s Folsom Prison concert.

“Now I need your help,” he says to the men gathered in the prison cafeteria. “When John comes out here, he will say - and which will be recorded - ‘Hi there, I’m Johnny Cash.’ When he says that, then you respond. Don’t respond to him walking out, welcome him after he says, ‘Johnny Cash.’ I’ll have my hands up, and you just follow me.”

“Are you ready?” he directs a question offstage.

“We’re ready,” says a voice, then a brief pause.

And only then, modestly, comes the phrase everybody knows: “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash.” And we’re off.

Such is the real opening of “Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison,” the landmark 1968 album that re-energized Cash’s career after a series of mid-‘60s setbacks. The album comes out in a 2-CD, 1-DVD “Legacy Edition” Tuesday.

In fact, that’s not even the REAL real opening - the concert actually begins with a short announcement from Cherry followed by performances of “Blue Suede Shoes” by Carl Perkins and “This Ole House” by the Statler Brothers. Moreover, as Cash biographer Michael Streissguth revealed in “Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison: The Making of a Masterpiece,” the famous cheer after Cash sings, “I shot a man in Reno/Just to watch him die” in “Folsom Prison Blues” was actually spliced in later by producer Bob Johnston.

So the “Folsom Prison” we hear, even in the new edition, isn’t the whole truth, is it? Or is it?

All I know is, the first time - hell, the 50th time - I heard Johnny Cash sing “I shot a man in Reno/Just to watch him die” I thought he was recalling an incident from his own life. Same with “Cocaine Blues”: “I took a shot of cocaine and I shot my woman down.” A man like Johnny Cash - he sounded like he’d lived that life. He sounded like a biblical prophet. He could make you believe.

That dark side wasn’t all to Cash, of course. Watch this video of him mocking Elvis Presley on a late-‘50s TV show: hilarious and true. He didn’t write “I’ve Been Everywhere,” wasn’t even close to the first one to record it, but he made it his own.

I could go on and on, and I already have.

Better to listen to “Folsom Prison” once again, this time with the second show (yes, there was a second show, recorded in case the first didn’t go well). Better to watch the man in action. Better to mark October 23, 9 p.m. ET, on your calendar for “Johnny Cash’s America,” a Bio Channel special devoted to the Man in Black.

“I Still Miss Someone,” goes the title of another song from “Folsom Prison.” It’s hard not to miss the towering Johnny Cash.

- Todd Leopold, CNN.com Entertainment Producer

Filed under: Music
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