“Johnny Cash passed to another life, and we’re here reliving the history he made — but in Spanish,” says Los Tigres del Norte’s Jorge Hernández (in hat), touring Folsom State Prison in Represa, Calif., with his band in April 2018.
“Johnny Cash passed to another life, and we’re here reliving the history he made — but in Spanish,” says Los Tigres del Norte’s Jorge Hernández (in hat), touring Folsom State Prison in Represa, Calif., with his band in April 2018.
Lance Dawes/RMS Music Group Inc/Rockingham Entertainment LLC

Behind Los Tigres del Norte's Bid to Play Folsom Prison -- And Carry On Johnny Cash's Legacy

When they set out to film a concert at Folsom Prison, Mexican stars Los Tigres del Norte took on Cash's spiritual legacy -- and the challenge of their career.

The Hernández brothers can still picture it: the hand-hewn granite blocks, the saw-toothed archway, the sliding-bolt gate.

“When you hear the doors open, you feel, like, a chill in your body,” says Eduardo.

“Everything is cold, everything is iron,” adds his older brother Hernán.

“And it feels very distinct when those doors close behind you,” says Jorge, the eldest of the three. “Doors that close -- and that for some never open.”

For the Hernándezes -- better known as three-fifths of Los Tigres del Norte, the most popular Mexican group in the world -- their memories of Folsom State Prison in California have been slow to fade. Last year, Los Tigres (which also includes younger brother Luis and cousin Oscar Lara) came to play a pair of concerts there that will soon catapult them onto a new multimedia stage. A Netflix original documentary, Los Tigres del Norte at Folsom Prison, begins streaming Sept. 15, pegged to the start of National Hispanic Heritage Month; a live soundtrack album produced by musical polymath Gustavo Santaolalla for the norteño group’s longtime label, Fonovisa/Universal, comes out two days earlier.

Gathered, with their wives, on a late-August evening at a steakhouse in their home base of San Jose, Los Tigres are ostensibly celebrating a weekend of local shows. But the group’s members still soberly recall their first moments at the Gothic fortress in the Central Valley.

“We didn’t do this to promote ourselves,” says Jorge, who, at 69, retains a chiseled jaw and exudes an old-world chivalry. Like every member of the band, he sips tea with his meal -- the better to preserve his voice. “This was intended to help the community,” he adds in soft, pensive Spanish, “to be part of the forgotten community that’s in there.”

It is no coincidence -- but also no small feat -- that Los Tigres pulled off their Folsom shows on the 50th anniversary of Johnny Cash’s landmark album At Folsom Prison, which set the standard for the prison concert genre. Although separated by culture, language and sartorial choices, the Man in Black and the lamé-suited quintet share common ground: an outlaw swagger, a penchant for spoken-word parables and a reservoir of empathy for those at society’s margins.

“The band has a real connection across time to Johnny Cash,” says the documentary’s co-producer Zach Horowitz, the former president/COO of Universal Music Group, home to Fonovisa, which is in turn part of Universal Music Latin Entertainment. “His themes are similar to their themes: songs for outsiders and misfits, for people who make tragic mistakes that haunt them for the rest of their lives.”

But the project ended up cementing an even closer musical bond. The late singer’s son, John Carter Cash, not only gave Los Tigres his blessing to record a Spanish-language version of his father’s “Folsom Prison Blues,” “La Prisión de Folsom” -- he asked the band to collaborate with his wife, Nashville singer-songwriter Ana Cristina Cash, on the translation (she’s credited as a co-writer).

“I love Los Tigres del Norte -- they’re the bomb,” says Ana Cristina, who grew up in a bilingual Cuban-American home. Her father-in-law, she says, “would have been proud that such a historic moment was repeated by this group, bringing his song to a brand-new audience.”

Since they arrived in the United States from the ox-plowed fields of Sinaloa, Mexico, in 1968, there is little Los Tigres have not done. Known for their pro-immigrant anthems and raw dispatches from Mexico’s underworld, they’ve built the kind of career matched by few artists of any genre: 3 billion on-demand streams and 5.3 million albums sold in the United States since 1991, according to Nielsen Music (and over 40 million globally, according to the band’s team); 24 No. 1 albums (seven of them on Billboard’s Top Latin Albums chart) and 15 No. 1 singles. They’ve won seven Grammy Awards (and eight Latin Grammys), received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and set attendance records that stretch from the Astrodome in Houston to the Zócalo in Mexico City.

Given California’s demographic revolution during that same half-century -- a time in which Latinos have emerged as the state’s largest population group -- Los Tigres considered themselves the ideal candidates to renew Cash’s legacy, to update what it means to be “stuck in Folsom Prison” where “time keeps draggin’ on.”

The project made perfect sense. But it almost didn’t even get off the ground.

 


 

In March 2017, while backstage at a music festival in the immigrant Los Angeles suburb of Pico Rivera, Los Tigres del Norte received a visit from an old friend. Though Horowitz had left Universal several years earlier, he had forged a mutual admiration society with the band, especially its accordion-slinging patriarch.

“Zach says to me, ‘George, what have you been doing?’ ” recalls Jorge Hernández, switching momentarily to English. Jorge’s reply: “Nothing. Just looking for something to do, uh, very different.”

The conversation turned to the band’s touring schedule. Once organized around the harvest patterns of farmworkers, it’s now more reflective of the many faces of Latino assimilation, spanning venues from overseas U.S. military bases to American Indian casinos to the wineries of California’s central coast (tickets to the winery shows can top $100). Immigration has at the same time remade the prison population; over 40% of California’s 125,000 inmates are Latino, about the same as the state’s Latino population overall.

“I said, ‘Why not do an album that takes you to an American prison, and make it bigger than an album -- make it a documentary, so you can explore issues of Latino incarceration and connect with your community?’ ” recalls Horowitz. “And Jorge said, ‘You mean like Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison?’ ”

Although Jorge had never met Cash, he knew and respected his music and had seen Cash perform once, in the 1970s. Los Tigres also understood the power of a prison show, a bridging of worlds that everyone from B.B. King to the Sex Pistols to Common has embraced -- and that Cash would again, in 1969, with At San Quentin. As teenagers, Los Tigres had even secured their first U.S. visas to join a caravan of Mexican performers on a concert tour to California’s Soledad prison.

“We’re all human, and there are moments when we all commit errors, when all of a sudden we become blinded by rage, passion, jealousy, desperation,” says Jorge, whose senior status is reflected in the cowboy hat that he wears while performing -- the only member of the band to don a sombrero onstage. “We wanted to send a message to the new generations, to people of all kinds, not to get to that difficult point in life.”

As the golden anniversary of Cash’s groundbreaking concert approached, Horowitz embarked on what he says became the most challenging professional endeavor of his life -- a crash course in independent film production, political arm-twisting and the intricacies of the prison industrial complex. “I negotiated Universal’s multibillion-dollar acquisition of PolyGram,” says Horowitz, a Stanford-trained lawyer. “This was harder.”

The biggest hurdle: a California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation policy against filming or recording concerts. “I was told that there were a hundred requests from different bands to record a concert album at Folsom Prison for the 50th anniversary,” recalls Horowitz, “and all were rejected, as was ours.”

A 40th-anniversary homage to Cash had actually been planned for Folsom in 2008, only to be called off days before. The prison and the promoter each blamed the other for the abrupt cancellation, triggered by disputes over security fees, film rights and media access.

Month after month, as 2017 turned into 2018, Horowitz rifled through the contacts he had made as a music mogul. (Though he’s unable to reveal details of the Netflix deal, he clarifies that the project was done “with our hearts, not for our wallets.”) He found allies in a former congressman and then-Gov. Jerry Brown’s office -- initially to no effect. Securing approval for the soundtrack album -- which Horowitz calls “probably the most effective marketing tool we have to get the word out about the documentary” -- was a separate hurdle, requiring an assist this year from California’s secretary of state and Gov. Gavin Newsom’s office.

“One day, Zach told me, ‘George, if I knew I was going to have so much trouble with this, I wouldn’t be here,’ ” says Jorge with a hoarse laugh. “And I said, ‘It’s too late, you’re already in it!’ ” Horowitz’s breakthrough came when he reached out to Ralph Diaz, then the prison system’s undersecretary for operations. “I must have talked to 10, 20, hundreds of people at the Department of Corrections about this project, and Ralph was the first Latino,” says Horowitz. “He said to me, ‘I’m a Los Tigres fan, my father is a Los Tigres fan, and my son listens to Los Tigres -- I know all about this band.’ ”

Raised in a small California farm town, Diaz had worked his way up from prison guard to warden to the top echelons of a department with a $12 billion annual budget. “The challenges come from the bureaucratic nature of a large agency,” says Diaz, now the department’s top official. “When a project like this comes forward, all you look at initially is, ‘How is this going to blow back on us?’ ”

Horowitz arranged a meeting in Sacramento and asked Jorge to attend. “Everything was in English,” says Jorge. “So I said to Ralph: ‘Habla español?’ ” He did, and the conversation warmed. “I sensed that the band wanted to come in for the right reasons,” says Diaz. “A lot of this is trust. And in the end, I trusted them.”

Diaz agreed to help shepherd the documentary to the finish line -- and to make the film available to inmates on a closed-circuit TV network -- but imposed one condition: no narcocorridos. Even though the band’s trove of polka-based ballads about the drug-trafficking life rarely end on a glamorous note, Diaz knew he would never live down a concert that used Folsom as a backdrop for cartel tales. He figured it was a deal-breaker: “I thought a band like that is going to tell this bureaucrat, ‘Absolutely not.’ ”

His fear was well founded: Los Tigres have previously flouted Mexico’s prohibitions on narco-themed music, earning a $25,000 fine after a Chihuahua concert as recently as 2017. “Always the people shout out the songs they want to hear,” explains Hernán Hernández, the group’s 66-year-old bassist, his signature mullet now crowned in gray. “In the end, we sing a few, so they stay satisfied.”

Ultimately, Los Tigres agreed to abide by the prison’s rules. In the weeks before the April 2018 shows -- one for men, a second for women in a separate Folsom facility -- Horowitz and his crew filmed interviews with some two dozen inmates, segments that would be interspersed throughout the movie and the accompanying 27-track album. Those conversations were so full of sorrow and remorse, Los Tigres responded with songs tailored to their testimony.

“The messages in your songs are what give us the strength to live every day,” Manuel Mena, who is doing 36 years to life for murder, tells the band in one English-subtitled scene. When Los Tigres find out he’s an accordionist -- who once played in a norteño group -- they invite him onstage for “Un Día a la Vez” (“One Day at a Time”), to the cheers of a sea of men in prison blues. (The band’s answer to those who might object: “There is always the possibility of hope and redemption for all of God’s beings.”)

“They have so many songs that talk about issues that were totally connected to the inmates,” says Santaolalla, the studio veteran best known for his Grammy-winning Latin rock productions and Academy Award-winning film scores. “It was possible to create a fantastic repertoire that touched deeply into the hearts of these people.” The power of those stories was, after all, what drew Netflix to the documentary (filming began before it signed on). “We’re always looking for projects that have something important to say and can have an impact,” says Rodrigo Mazon, vp content acquisition.

Although Johnny Cash never served time in prison, he once explained that he could relate to his Folsom audience because “most of us are living in one little kind of prison or another... whether we know it or not.” The same is true of Los Tigres, who now live the American dream but remember their early struggles navigating the United States -- at first without papers. In songs like “La Jaula de Oro” (“The Golden Cage”), they spin the lament of an immigrant caught between two worlds into a tale about life behind bars.

“Like Johnny Cash,” the band says at the end of the documentary, “we came here to bring light to this dark place.”

This article originally appeared in the Sept. 14 issue of Billboard.

 
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