Review

Since two of the defining albums of Johnny Cash's career were live sets recorded during prison concerts -- Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison and Johnny Cash at San Quentin -- it is hard to imagine a fan of the Man in Black not picking up this disc with high interest and reasonable expectations, but listeners should be aware that A Concert: Behind Prison Walls is a very different kettle of fish than Cash's earlier jailhouse sessions. While the Folsom Prison and San Quentin albums sounded as if Cash was performing for the prisoners like no one else in the world was listening and with an air of total communication between artist and audience, this set was recorded in 1976 at Nashville's Tennessee State Penitentiary for a television special and is a bit differet. The circumstances find Cash in more subdued form, though he never sounds less than committed, especially on "Sunday Morning Coming Down" and "Jacob Green." (This show also features Cash's '70s road band, which is a good deal slicker than the flinty report of the combo on Folsom Prison.) But most significantly, Cash only appears on seven of this album's 16 tracks. The remainder of the album was taken up by his televised "special guests," including Linda Ronstadt (who sounds fine, though one wonders if this was the best audience for either "You're No Good" or "Desperado"), Roy Clark (who sings "That Honeymoon Feeling," no matter what the liner notes say, and it is some sort of landmark in bathetic Nash-Vegas sludge), and comic Foster Brooks (who not only does his famous drunk bit but sings an unnerving sub-Robert Goulet interpretation of "Half As Much"). The television announcer's introductions have also been kept in to remind listeners just what the source for this material was, and this ultimately sounds just as bold and challenging as a television special from the mid-'70s -- which is to say that outside of 17-and-a-half minutes of Cash singing with his typical strength and authority, this doesn't merit a re-run. Spin the first three and last four tracks and leave the rest behind. ~ Mark Deming, Rovi

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