It’s strange how things in life come in waves. I frequently find something new – or at least new to me – only for it to suddenly appear, quite independently, in several areas of my life, sort of like opening a random book to a random page only to find the perfect bit of advice that I need right then. Then I open another book and find something that reinforces the first bit as if the Universe – or at least my library – is saying, “don’t miss this.” Lately, I’m not to miss old-school country music.
After finally seeing Walk the Line a few weeks ago, I bought Johnny Cash’s 1968 CD At Folsom Prison. It’s a great record in which Cash plays a number of mostly prison and outlaw tunes. In the liner notes, Cash explains why he likes playing for prisoners:
Prisoners are the greatest audience that an entertainer can perform for. We bring them a ray of sunshine in their dungeon and they’re not ashamed to respond, and show their appreciation.
Cash’s performance is one of genuine engagement with his audience, and the listener can truly hear the appreciation of the inmates. The CD is more than just a collection of great songs, it’s a documented moment of providing hope to the hopeless. I spent the next few days thinking about what that must have been like to be locked up and then find that Johnny Cash would be coming to perform and what it would be like to hear those songs in that kind of an environment.
So Cash is where the outlaw country wave began. Then on Saturday night we saw Willie Nelson at the Backyard. Willie and Cash were fellow Highwaymen along with Kris Kristofferson and Waylon Jennings. The wave grew and finally peaked on Tuesday.
Every week guests are brought in to motivate, inspire and sometimes entertain the kids. This week a couple of guys came in to do a Johnny Cash show. Now, I don’t exactly teach in a prison, it’s more like county lock-up for kids, but then this wasn’t exactly Johnny Cash. The effects, however, were similar to what I imagined.
The singer was an older gentleman who played guitar beautifully (despite a bandaged hand) and truly did justice to Cash’s material without imitating it. He also played other songs, but Cash was the focus. He opened with “Folsom Prison Blues” and played a number of songs from At Folsom Prison, which I might not have known had I not just purchased the CD. He did stay away from some of the rougher material such as “Cocaine Blues” and added such classics as “Ring of Fire” and “Walk the Line.”
I was surprised to see many of the kids who were raised on punk and hip-hop actually singing along. I think most of them even enjoyed the show, which gave me an approximation of what it might have been like to see Cash at Folsom Prison.
As the show was wrapping up, I mentioned to the teacher sitting next to me that after having seen Willie on Saturday night and now a Cash tribute show, I’d need to somehow try to catch Kris. Then he started into his last song: “Me and Bobby McGee.” I think that’s where the wave broke. Good enough for me.