On this date in 1968, The Man in Black gave the legendary concert that likely saved his life.
Johnny Cash had performed at various prisons for years before recording his phenomenally popular At Folsom Prison live album on Jan. 13, 1968. The Man in Black often spoke of his special kinship with the men behind bars — due in part to his own brushes with the law, most of them the result of his drug abuse.
But the 1968 concert at California’s Folsom Prison was something special: It came at a point when his career was flagging, his celebrity was waning, and his health was threatened by drug and alcohol abuse. If you say this concert — and the triple-platinum-selling album it spawned — quite literally saved his life, few would argue the point with you.
In The Gift: The Journey of Johnny Cash, the acclaimed 2019 documentary about The Man in Black, director Ron Zimny (Elvis Presley: The Searcher) and scriptwriter Warren Zanes use the concert as the anchor for their free-floating, stripped-to-essentials biographical narrative — viewing the Folsom Prison performance, as I noted in my Variety review of the film, as the event that “helped solidify his image as a reformed outlaw — and potential backslider — whose hard living and hell-raising could have led to his own extended stretch behind bars.
“Time and again, The Gift returns to Folsom, sometimes to exemplify Cash’s deep and abiding concern for underdogs, sometimes for its role in the elevation of artist into icon, and sometimes to underscore its importance as one of many turning points in a lifetime that appeared to careen constantly between success and disaster, sin and redemption.”
The Gift: The Journey of Johnny Cash is available for free viewing on YouTube.