Thanks to the movie I Walk the Line, Johnny Cash’s story and unexpected rise are well-known.
It’s certainly true that there is a grim austerity to his music that you don’t often hear popular country music. And nowhere is that more evident than in “Folsom Prison Blues.” The song’s signature line is “I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die.” But its central image is even more poignant than this arbitrary act of violence: A prisoner hearing a train whistle and reflecting on how he might never escape his encased life, and what he would do if ever did.
Hearing this song performed live at Folsom Prison is a compelling, masterful wrinkle. You hear the energy of the prisoners in every second, from the unexpected moments where they cheer to the moments of surprising silence.
There is something truly powerful and transcendent about Cash’s live presence that sucks you in. It’s in tracks like these that it’s not hard to imagine as Cash as Kurt Cobain if he’d been born thirty years later — an angry iconoclast and generational voice.