Laying down the law

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"At Folsom Prison" (Columbia/Legacy),
"Complete Live at San Quentin" (Columbia/Legacy),
"Murder" (Columbia/American)

This show is being recorded for an album ... so you can't say 'hell' or 'shit' or anything like that," Johnny Cash jokes on his searing live record "At Folsom Prison." "They said, 'You gotta do this song, you gotta do that song,'" he states about the TV and recording crews capturing his woozier, weirder concert for San Quentin's inmates, "and I just don't get it. I'm here to do what you want me to do and what I want to do."

As these remarks show, Cash didn't just go out of his way to perform in prisons; he made it clear he was on the side of the convicts, the hell with record producers and other corporate types. He was there for the guys languishing and hopeless behind bars, and he forged an alliance with them, dropping references to his pills, making double entendres and talking about his own run-ins with the law, which were very limited and very offhand (for those pills, for -- of all things -- picking flowers). In his late-'60s comeback heyday Cash was a deep-voiced enigma, the Man in Black, like a preacher, or like an outlaw, towering, drawling, craggy-browed, jittered up on speed. All this at a time when "Hey Jude," Robert Kennedy's assassination and flower power were swirling.

Of course, Cash wasn't actually on the side of the outlaws. He'd had off-and-on success since 1955 and hosted the prime-time "The Johnny Cash Show" on ABC from 1969-71. The original 1968 "At Folsom Prison" record bleeped out "shit" and went on to be a best seller. Nonetheless, this suburban-sanctioned adulation can't erase the strangeness of the image of millions of Americans dropping their hi-fi needles into the record's grooves to be confronted, in a mere 40 seconds, with the line, "I shot a man in Reno/ Just to watch him die." And not only that cold-hearted, slit-eyed sentiment, but also the sound of 2,000 convicts whooping in its favor. It's one of the most startling moments of recorded music.

Cash's romantic-outlaw image was deliberately cultivated, and his body-littered ballads of blood live up to the image. Watching the life drain out of the guy in Reno isn't even the worst of it, regardless of how iconic that line is. "At Folsom Prison" also includes "Cocaine Blues," a hard-driving little number that opens, "Early one morning while making the rounds/ I took a shot of cocaine and I shot my woman down." Come again? What in God's name did those prisoners think? Or the guards watching them? And what could have gone through the mind of the record's original Nixon-electing, Rice-A-Roni-eating public? And what about when we hear those words today, blazing out of the reissue of "At Folsom Prison" released a few months ago that adds three songs, new liner notes and pictures of Cash at the prison? These days we have gansta-rap bragging, "American Psycho" and Columbine, and yet that line, I'm guessing, can still elicit a thorough shudder. As musician Steve Earle, a present-day country-music outlaw, writes in the reissue's notes, "Cash was different. He was a BADASS."

The Folsom Prison record remains the well-burnished highlight of the Cash rebel catalog. Along with a generous amount of the singer's charisma, the record includes a sparse, lovely version of the adultery tragedy "The Long Black Veil," as well as the rave-up "Jackson," a duet with his soon-to-be-wife June Carter, who tears through her verses with old-time gusto.

A recently released entry in Cash's outlaw vein is the compilation "Murder," which can be purchased on its own or as part of a three-CD set (the other ones being "Love" and "God," which just about sums it up, no?). The 1955 Sun Records version of "Folsom Prison Blues" opens this CD, and it's followed by "Delia's Gone," from Cash's acclaimed 1994 CD, "American Recordings." That 40-year span didn't cool down Cash's penchant for blunt, low-down meanness. The 1994 cut gives us the hilarious deadpan cruelty of the line, "If I hadn't shot poor Delia/ I'd have had her for my wife," and the blank chill of, "First time I shot her, I shot her in her side/ Hard to watch her suffer, but with the second shot she died."

"Murder," as it jumps around in time, samples a range of styles, including the fiddle-adorned "Orleans Parish Prison," the loping "The Sound of Laughter," with its saloon-ready piano break, a gospel-tinged "Joe Bean," and the spoken-word intro to the work song "Going to Memphis." The CD brims with killing, running from the law and -- not to be overlooked -- repentance, as is the case with lots of traditional folk murder ballads. Sometimes the narrator's regret comes only the form of wishing he hadn't done the one deed that got him stuck behind bars for the rest of his life. Other times, the pull of conscience is real. "Delia's Gone" ends with the speaker not being able to sleep because "All around my bed I hear the patter of Delia's feet."

Now available is the reissue of Cash's "At San Quentin," recorded a year after the Folsom performance and selling even better, having spent 20 weeks atop the country album chart. A vastly different feel rolls off this concert than the earlier one. The musicianship is less crisp, as is Cash's chatter, which sounds sketchy and at points goes on uncomfortably long. He seems less in control of the mood and of his own singing voice. This makes for a thrillingly fascinating listen.

The original San Quentin record included the hit "A Boy Named Sue," two versions of the written-just-for-the-occasion "San Quentin" (back-to-back, no less -- what was he thinking?), the sugary "Darlin' Companion," with June Carter, and Bob Dylan's "Wanted Man" (ending with a botched fade-out). The reissue adds eight unreleased songs, which probably didn't make the original cut because they'd been done better previously ("Ring of Fire," "Big River" ) or because they were religious, taking advantage of the strong, clear voices of backup singers the Carter Family and the Statler Brothers.

One can only wonder why he felt the need to display unabashed revivalism for this show. Introducing "He Turned the Water in to Wine," Cash says, "We'd like to hit a serious note," then describes a recent trip to Israel, explaining that just as for him, "I know for a lot of you ... they were always dear to you, the stories and songs about Israel." Unfortunately, neither this song nor "The Old Account Was Settled Long Ago" has the rousing infectiousness that marks the best spirituals. The inclusion of these songs, however, shows that Cash -- who originally pitched himself to Sun Records as a gospel singer -- often put murder and God side by side, offering himself as an Old Testament-washed figure, a preacher from one angle, an outlaw from another, compelling all the way around.

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