Johnny Cash is among my most inspiring heroes in the history of the earth. He compares with Tecumseh who led a coalition of Indian tribes against the United States in the war of 1812, if not for him and Maj.Gen.Isaac Brock Canada would have been sucessfully invaded by the United States. In terms of personal heroes Johnny Cash compares in my world to rebel musicians to the likes Woody Guthrie and Joe Hill, people whose music was about more than the limelight of fame. Rather their talent was a tool to make the world a better place.
Let’s put to rest the idea that Johnny Cash was ever a prisoner for more than a night at a time. He was in trouble for barbituates, for vagrancy in Starkville Mississippi and for burning down a national state forest by accident, but he never served any hard time. He did however know what the inside of a prison looked like.
PA Osteroker is a Swedish prison that Johnny Cash and the band visited in 1972, the album was released in 1973. Cash made it a personal thing to visit as many prisoners as he could over the course of his amazing career having played in dozens of prisons. Two of his most famous visits are of course his 1968 trip to Fulsom Prison and 1969 concert at San Quentin. In 1959 he visited Fulsom Prison for the first time, in the chains at that time was a man named Merle Haggard who was inspired upon his release to become a country singer himself. We all know what became of Merle Haggard and his amazing career. Likewise outlaw country superstar David Allan Coe credits his release from prison to Cash who personally helped Coe see the light of day again. In 1968 Johnny Cash learned a song written by Fulsom inmate Glen Shirley who was released in 1970, Glen joined Johnny on some tours and was able to buy himself a cattle farm out of Nashville.
Pa Osteraker was just one of many prisons Cash visited, it’s a rare album to find but I rate it at the top of all the recording that Cash ever produced. The average persons knowledge of Cash’s recording work goes about as deep as his top 16 hits, however Johnny was prolific having released dozens of dozens of albums. His prison recordings are undoubtadly the defining moments in the first half of his career, yet I believe Pa Osteraker is a recording even superior to Fulsom and San Quentin.
Pa Osteraker’s recording quality is harmonically superior, Cash’s band is smokin hot with a groovy twist not generally found in any of Cash’s recordings. The addition of Larry Butler’s piano adds a sweet resonance to the songs. Carl Perkins assumed a greater role as a lead guitarist by 1973, throughout the entire record his hot pickin throws a groovy twist on Johnny’s song that his music often lacked. Luther Perkins, the original Tennessee Three guitarist tended to be minimalist while the legendary Carl Perkins dances up and down the fretboards in a way Luther’s boogie woogie dared not venture. Carl Perkins leads a number of the songs giving Johnny’s voice a rest.
With 24 tracks Pa Osteraker is a longer album than Cash’s more famous prison recordings with over an hour of sweet music. On top of everything it is entertaining to hear Cash attempt to reach out to the Swedish prisoners by speaking to them in their own language.
Many of the songs on the record are not to be found anywhere else in Cash’s discography. The album begins with a sweet instrumental version of I Walk the Line with the piano playing the vocal melody in a honky tonk fashion. Johnny takes the stage and rips out a Boy Named Sue then dives into a number of great Kris Kristopherson songs. These recordings of Sunday Morning Coming Down and Me and Bobby McGee are probably the two best versions I ever heard, the piano again adds this honky tonk quality that is mysteriously absent from any other Cash recording. Johnny plays a version of San Quentin early in the album but changes its name to Pa Osteraker.
“Pa Osteraker, you’ve been living hell to me.”
One of the most touching songs on the album is Jacob Green, it’s an original tune about a young man who was busted for possession of marijuana in Virginia. Like so many other young people in the history of the United States Jacob Green faced a long and harsh prison sentence for only a small amount of pot. Unable to imagine years in prison Jacob Green hung himself in his jail cell. There’s a conviction and subtle anger in Cash’s voice as he tells the tale of the aftermath of Jacob’s death, especially when Johnny sez, ‘they put a brand new coat of paint on Jacob’s cell.’
There’s just something about this record that is strangely unique. It’s the grooviest and coolest of all Cash’s work yet is one of those records that is so rare to find. Cash produced so many albums whose songs disappeared from the public memory yet they often end up being the albums I like the most, records like Everybody Loves a Nut (1966) and Bitter Tears/Ballads of the American Indian (1962). Pa Osteraker is a must have for any dedicated Johnny Cash fan and is my favorite of all his works.