Fifty years ago this month, Johnny Cash released an album that was unlike anything that came before it. Not for the music, but for the place it was recorded: California’s Folsom Prison.
Cash had been performing in prisons for a decade, ever since his song “Folsom Prison Blues” became a hit with inmates. The concert album reinvigorated Cash’s career and became the stuff of rock 'n'roll legend, reaching a whole new generation through the Hollywood biopic “Walk the Line.”
“I said to her, basically, I want to get my buddies and play that full record start to finish at a bar,” Wilson said. “And her answer right away was—”
“That would be really interesting if you did that in a prison,” Schlapp interjected. “So we started this investigation and realized, this is really rich material and a 50-year anniversary. And it immediately brings to mind these questions of, ‘Is this relevant to a prison population now?’”
Schlapp and Wilson reached out to the Oregon Department of Corrections and found there was a lot of interest in having them play. So they put together Folsom50, a show that interweaves small narratives about Cash's iconic performance with the full concert's setlist (including songs that got cut from the original album, like "Busted"), and Schlapp, who is a printmaker, created a program with art and essays about Cash's songwriting and his history with poverty, addiction and prisons. (Counter to popular myth, Cash never served more than a night in jail.)
The name of their band: Luther’s Boots, after a comment Cash makes about how the muddy color of Folsom’s water looks like it ran off the boots of his guitarist, Luther Perkins.
Luther’s Boots played their first show at the low-security Columbia River Correctional Institute in early April. Then in late April, the band met in the parking lot of the Coffee Creek Correctional Facility to play at the medium-security women’s prison.
Turns out, loading into a prison concert is an entirely different process. The band had to check in every single item — every guitar string and pick — and then check it back out to prove they’d left nothing behind.
“A band comes in heavy,” Schlapp said. “So before we can even sound check, we give ourselves about an hour to get in.”
After entering Coffee Creek, the band wheeled their gear through several locked gates, past the intake area (Coffee Creek handles intake for the entire state), to the women’s wing and set up in the chapel. As women of all ages started to filter in, wearing blue jeans and blue shirts with “Inmate” stamped on their backs in red letters, Wilson and the band struggled with one last dilemma: whether the song “Cocaine Blues” was appropriate for the audience. The misogyny and violence against women in Cash’s lyrics almost doomed the project from the start for Schlapp.
“The lyric, ‘I can’t believe the day I shot that bad bitch down,’” Wilson said. “Justine’s wondering if I’m really going to say it.”
“I just feel like it’s sensitive, you know,” said singer Justine Francis Snyder. “But then again, it’s art, so why would you edit it?”
“I almost wonder if it’s worse to censor it,” chimed in guitarist Peter LeClair.
After all, the band’s goal was to follow Cash’s mission to play the same show they would play anywhere.
“The way we see his interaction with the inmates is that he treats them like regular people, because they are,” Wilson said. “So what I try to do is to ignore as best I could the fact that we’re inside a prison and just to be as engaged as I would be with anybody else that we’re playing to.”
As Wilson started the show, though, he discovered there might be minor differences between performing outside and inside these walls.
“We’re glad that you’re all here,” he says, before catching himself. “Well, actually I’m not. I’m sorry.”
The room erupted in laughter.
“That was a total failure,” he continued. “In this room with us is what I meant. If you’ve got to be here, we’re glad you’re here in this room with us.”
“We’re a captive audience,” one of the inmates shot back. It’s only the first of a string of gallows jokes and catcalls that got thrown back at the band. But from the opening notes of “Folsom Prison Blues,” the prevailing response was sheer enthusiasm and joy.
As the band played through the full Folsom concert, they added several modern flourishes, like having Snyder sing “Long Black Veil” and several other songs. With every fast number, the women in the audience bounded to their feet to clap and sing along.
Going back to Schlapp and Wilson’s original question, it’s clear that the music still resonates today, with its themes of loneliness, homesickness and a life of struggle with few options, where it’s just a small step between poverty and prison.
“When he talked about prison, doing time and stuff, he got it,” said Patty Turner, 60, who has less than five years to go on a 25-year sentence. She got to the show early so she could sit in the front row. “It's time away from everything that's normal and natural to you, and Johnny seems like he got it.”
Like many of the older inmates, Turner grew up on Johnny Cash and knows many of his lyrics. But she said his music has taken on a whole new resonance at Coffee Creek. The song “Folsom Prison Blues” particularly speaks to her, just as it did to inmates when Cash released it in 1955.
“We all just want to get on that train and go,” she said. “We all just want to get away from here. Most of us are going to get that chance. Some of them won’t. Some of them are doing life here.”
As for the band’s concerns about the lyrics to “Cocaine Blues” — the line got one of the biggest hoots of the night.
Inmates like Mary Pierce say that Cash was simply singing the truth.
“It’s the life that a lot of us led that we relate to, and we can understand where he was coming from,” she said.
For both lifelong Cash fans and inmates too young to know his music, the most powerful thing is the simple fact that the band is there at all.
“I’ve been in prison six years,” Pierce said. “I will have seen two things that have come to this side of the prison. You know, the men get car shows and so on. Women — I think people are afraid to come in because we’re girls. So it’s nice that somebody’s actually taking time to come into the medium side, behind all the gates, and hang out with a bunch of girls that are just rowdy and are excited for the entertainment.”
After the band closed with an encore of greatest hits, women streamed forward to thank them.
“I had one woman tell me it was the best hour that she had in 16 years in here,” Wilson said. “That’s why we’re doing it: hopefully to give them a little respite from their daily life in here.”
Wilson, Schlapp and the rest of the band hope to take the Folsom50 concert to facilities around the state and already have invitations to Pendleton, Ontario and elsewhere. To help fund the tour, they're putting on two concerts for those of us on the outside at Portland's Polaris Hall on May 20. Wear your prison blues in solidarity — or your best black.