A key work in the towering mythology of Johnny Cash, At Folsom Prison remains the best distillation of his outlaw persona, a priceless document of his gallows humour, sympathy for underdogs and authoritative baritone.
But it’s perhaps in danger of becoming a record more referenced than played, so this recreation of the famed occasion – which saw Cash play an eclectic but brutally honest and often death-themed set to a crowd of inmates – seemed a brilliant concept.
Getting the venue right was key to recreating the palpable sense of occasion and dark magic of the original. And the cavernous Parramatta Gaol courtyard, bordered by imposing sandstone walls and coils of barbed wire, made for a mightily atmospheric backdrop.
The success of this night, however, really hinged on finding someone to recreate Cash’s gravelly, semi-spoken vocals and defiant charisma, and in Tex Perkins (recently named by Robert Forster as one of only six true rock stars Australia has produced) Far From Folsom could not have had a more perfect ring-in for the Man in Black.
From the bluesy, doom-laden storytelling in the famed titled track to the grimly funny death row countdown of ’25 Minutes to Go’, Perkins ripped into the work, completely comfortable in his assumed persona. As the night chilled and bugs buzzed around the gaol’s swooping searchlights, an appreciative crowd swayed to the heartbreak of ‘I Still Miss Someone’ and the straightforward but poignant ‘Give My Love to Rose’.
The record also takes in Cash’s easily forgotten sillier side, with the novelty song ‘Dirty Old Egg-Sucking Dog’ and the self-consciously ridiculous ‘Flushed from the Bathroom of Your Heart’ both providing moments of levity in a generally intense song cycle.
It would hardly have been an authentic tribute without a June Carter Cash figure – and Rachel Tidd filled those spurred shoes admirably on the stirring duet ‘Jackson’ and the self-mythologising ‘I Walk the Line’, the latter one of a handful of classic songs not on the record to appear in the setlist.
‘A Boy Named Sue’ and ‘Ring of Fire’ made welcome appearances as the night wore on, but the focus was mostly on the Folsom record and the seemingly simple but mightily powerful songs it contains.
This was a fitting tribute to an amazing time and place in both rock and country music history, and to a collection of songs perhaps best summed up by the words of songwriter Harlan Howard, whose ‘Busted’ and ‘The Wall’ are key tracks on the record: “three chords and the truth”.