It’s noon in a Washington, D.C., hotel when members of the revered norteño band Los Tigres del Norte stroll into a room off the lobby and join Johnny Cash’s son, the singer-songwriter John Carter Cash and Carter Cash’s wife, singer-songwriter Ana Cristina.
The night before, the band had given a spirited set at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts as one of the featured acts for the Hispanic Heritage Awards, which aired recently on PBS. But on this day they are not in performance mode. They want to talk about the making of the documentary “Los Tigres del Norte at Folsom” now playing on Netflix. A year after performing for the inmates at the prison where Johnny Cash famously played, the experience is still on their minds.
“It took a lot of energy from me,” says lead singer Jorge Hernandez, recalling the concert at the California state prison in Sacramento County. “Something presses against your body, and you don’t know what to do. After leaving Folsom, I couldn’t go to sleep. I kept thinking about every step I took. It stays with you.”
The concert was a full-circle experience for the band, which in 1967 played its first concert in the U.S. for the Mexican inmates at another California state prison, this time Monterey County’s Soledad, now known as Correctional Training Facility.
The remaining band members — Hernán Hernández, Eduardo Hernández, Luis Hernández and Óscar Lara — also spoke at length about the challenges of taking on a project directed by Tom Donahue with music produced by Oscar- and Latin Grammy-winning Gustavo Santaolalla.
The documentary was suggested to Jorge Hernández by Zach Horowitz, the former president/COO of Universal Music Group last year when the two saw each other at the Pico Rivera Sports Arena, popular for its presentation of regional Mexican acts. Horowitz introduced the idea of doing something special for the 50th anniversary of “At Folsom Prison,” the classic album recorded by the late Johnny Cash.
“The idea of bringing Los Tigres to perform at Folsom for a documentary about Latinx incarceration, 50 years after Johnny Cash’s legendary concert there just seemed irresistible to me,” Horowitz says. “For five decades the band has been singing about the struggles of common folk trying to find their way, sometimes against all odds, sometimes tragically.”
Los Tigres is known for music with socially conscious themes such as family, immigration and gun violence through songs such as 2014’s “La Bala.”
“For the Latin community,” Horowitz adds, “they are Johnny Cash, Bruce Springsteen and the Grateful Dead all rolled into one.”
“Zack called me and said, ‘Lets meet with the governor,’” Jorge Hernández says, speaking of then-Gov. Brown. But even after their meeting, “it was not an easy task” to get the clearances for the project, Horowitz says. “We hit roadblock after roadblock. Sometimes it seemed that there was no way we could make it happen. It’s not a coincidence that no one has been able to do this in 50 years.”
After “a lot of conversations,” Horowitz says, “California’s Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation came to the conclusion that this was much more than a concert film. They saw the public service benefits and finally approved.”
Still, making the film wouldn’t be simple. The production had to be minimal, with one camera, single-take performances and extremely tight guidelines and security.
John Carter Cash, who has fostered a relationship with Folsom through the years, says he felt the project spoke to the spirit of his father’s beliefs as someone who wanted to shed light on people and things that needed attention.
“Dad had a great desire to bring light where there was need and that was his desire all through his life,” says Carter Cash. His wife, Ana Cristina, translated Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues” into Spanish for the project, which also produced a soundtrack album released by the band’s longtime label Fonovisa through Universal Music Latin Entertainment. “My father would approve. He would stand behind the documentary and would do so with so much love.”
The legendary singer’s son is also the executive producer of the upcoming YouTube documentary “The Gift: The Journey of Johnny Cash,” which begins streaming Nov. 11. It highlights his father’s repugnance for “prejudices toward women, race and creed,” Cash says.
The Netflix documentary shows Folsom from different vantages, including the perspective of the prison audience. It’s also dotted with interviews of inmates, 43% of whom are Latino. The band wanted the stories of those inside Folsom to be the focal point of the film.
“This really is not about us,” Jorge says. He hopes that the message from the documentary and the album reaches people on the outside as much as it is also seen as a moment of hope for those inside.
“In one second someone lost control and committed a crime,” says Hernán, who also came away wondering about the faces he met. “Not everyone is there because they killed somebody.”
It was during a tour of the facilities when the band heard a voice as they walked through a housing area where a small opening in each door allows inmates to see out into the walkway area. “All of a sudden,” Hernán recalls, “I hear this voice in Spanish.”
“What are you guys doing here?” asked a voice from a cell. “You making a movie? You making a video?”
“We came here to perform,” Hernán said. “Didn’t you know?”
“No, I’ve known your music since I saw you in Bakersfield 15 years ago,” the inmate said. “If I had behaved well, I would have seen you all.”
In that instant, the band that has sold more than 30 million albums in an arc of more than 40 years, got a sober reminder about the lives of those they would leave behind in prison when they went home to their San Jose, Calif. homes.
An inmate, as seen in the film, tells Los Tigres that he never committed the crime, but a jury found him guilty. It’s stories like those that Hernán believes need support because in many cases, people who end up at Folsom often were not able to pay for strong legal representation.
The story of one particular inmate named Manuel resonated strongly with the band because he performed with them. Reality set in seconds after that showcase.
“I was so upset because when the show finished I wanted to give him my thanks,” Jorge says. “They were taking him back and I wanted to speak with him. I didn’t have that opportunity. They just took him.”
Recalling their time at Folsom, Los Tigres and everyone who joined the making of the film are filled with optimism as well, they said, because the conversation has begun and education about life inside any prison is something that merits attention.
Although the interviews in the documentary seem to flow freely at times, they were kept under a tight rein, Jorge says, adding that the band was also given direction about what they could take in and what they could ask.
“It surprised me that one of the inmates said he was wrongfully accused,” Jorge says. “I was thinking about what may have happened to him because he said it to the camera. They supervised our filming, but it’s there and documented.”
Since the release of the film, fans of Los Tigres seem to appreciate the efforts it took to present a film on a subject rarely captured by cameras. One Instagram fan said, “Puro Johnny Cash awesome.” Another poster called the Folsom visit “an act of love. I take off my hat to give you my respect.”
The Netflix documentary is atmospheric in the spirit of hope through the music of Cash, Los Tigres and the production that captured so much with so little to work with due to the limitations. But it’s the candid and close-up interviews and honest conversations that show the humanity and reality of life behind bars
When it came to the music, Ana Cristina, who is Cuban American and a fan of Los Tigres (she watched them on Univision since she was a child), says that translating “Folsom Prison Blues” was a collaborative effort between herself and her husband and the band.
“If you listen to ‘Ring of Fire’ you can hear mariachi trumpets,” Carter Cash says. “My father had a dream and he heard those trumpets. He asked a friend to help him with the arrangements.”
“There’s a special connection across time between Johnny Cash and Los Tigres,” Horowitz says. “Their songs deal with similar themes and both artists have a powerful visceral bond with their audience.”
The expectation of the Cash/Los Tigres del Norte union is that it encourages as many people as possible, from immigrants to those who have served in the military and others who deserve to be treated humanely.
“My father always believed in bringing people together,” Cash says, before he takes off to find his baby daughter. “In the ‘60s he was a champion for Native Americans, indigenous people’s rights. People wanted to forget and turn their backs on those who had no voice. That was the spirit of this recording with Los Tigres del Norte and from the very beginning it felt like it was going to be something worthwhile. If it can help people, we’re very proud.”
“It’s the band’s way of carrying Johnny Cash’s torch forward and introducing new fans to his music,” Horowitz says. “There are no borders when it comes to great songs.”