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How Johnny Cash Went To (Folsom) Prison And Changed Everything

Icons | January 13, 2021

Johnny Cash on the cover of 'At Folsom Prison.' Source: Amazon.com

Johnny Cash At Folsom Prison just about saved Johnny Cash. By the mid-'60s, the country music legend wasn't as popular as he'd once been. He was ready to turn it around, and on January 13, 1968, at California's Folsom State Prison, he put on a show that was groundbreaking, personally satisfying, and commercially successful. 

Cash had been interested in prisoners and prison life for over a decade, and "Folsom Prison Blues" had been a big hit in 1955. His days of hitmaking seemed behind him, but At Folsom Prison changed his trajectory, making him relevant to younger listeners and setting the stage for him to get his own TV show.

The Journey Began With A Film

The film that inspired Cash's song, Folsom Prison Blues. Source: (DVD Beaver)

Yes, Johnny Cash did spend some time in jail sobering up, but he was never really a criminal (though he was revered as an influence on the outlaw country movement). He did not base his song “Folsom Prison Blues” on a particular experience in jail; rather, he was inspired by the 1951 film Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison.  Cash's song was written from the perspective of a man who had shot someone just to watch him die; Cash wanted to create a character who had committed a crime with the most senseless motivation possible. He wrote the song in 1953 and released it in 1955; the song did relatively well in 1956 and was popular with inmates, who began corresponding with him. In 1957, he had his first prison concert at the Huntsville State Prison in Texas and this was followed by performances in additional prisons.

He Needed Something To Revive His Career

Cash in 1969. Source: (Joel Baldwin/Wikipedia)

Cash’s career was not going well in the years leading up to his performance at Folsom Prison. Cash had been making headlines, but those headlines were not positive. He had smuggled pills over the Mexican border and had an open affair with June Carter. As Cash struggled with his addictions, trying to get him to come to the studio became more of a challenge and he was struggling with the effects of alcoholism and pill addiction. In 1966, at the suggestion of a preacher, he first played at Folsom.

A Way To Revitalize His Career

Johnny Cash and June Carter. Source: (History Things)

Two years later, as Cash’s career struggled, he convinced his record company to let him record an album in a prison, and some saw the album as a way to motivate him as he genuinely was concerned about the downtrodden. At the same time, the country division of Columbia Records was in the midst of some personnel changes. As these forces coalesced, the record company agreed to record the album in a prison, and they called Folsom and San Quentin; the first recording happened in Folsom because they were the first to answer the phone.  

They Rehearsed In A Hotel

The hotel where they rehearsed prior to the concert. Source: (CardCow)

Before the performance, Cash and Carter checked into the El Rancho Hotel in Sacramento, where they were joined by bandmates and the Reverend Floyd Gressett, the pastor of a church in Ventura, where Cash had sometimes attended services. Over the course of their stay, they rehearsed and Gressett, who also counselled inmates at Folsom, passed along “Greystone Chapel,” written by Glen Sherley, one of the inmates. Gressett asked Cash to mention that he had heard it, but Cash took it a step farther. Cash taught himself “Greystone Chapel” so that he could play it during the concert. Also during their stay, the California Governor, Ronald Reagan met them there and offered words of encouragement. 

The Design For The Show

Folsom Prison. Source: (KCRA)

Cash had planned for two performances that day, just in case one did not go as planned. He was joined on stage by Carl Perkins and the Statler Brothers, in addition to June Carter. The set list was designed with the audience in mind; Cash started both shows with “Folsom Prison Blues” and ended with “Greystone Chapel,” unbeknownst to Sherley. Once Sherley was released from prison, he joined Cash’s band, but unfortunately, did not adjust well to life outside prison, and lost his job with the band when he threatened one of his bandmates.  

It Captured The Raw Experience

Source: (Underground Music Collective)

The raucous nature of the concert created quite a vibe as the inmates shouted and sang along, encouraged by Cash’s request that they make a lot of noise. Despite their noise, the prisoners showed Cash remarkable respect and probably would have done anything he asked. As the first show had more energy, the majority of the songs on the album came from this earlier show, since Cash and his band were tired when they began to perform again. It took four months to release At Folsom Prison, as Columbia did not want to invest significant money in its production. That turned out to be a good thing, as listeners embraced the simplicity and rawness of the album. It was released in May, 1968, and the single, “Folsom Prison Blues” made it onto the Billboard Hot 100. On June 5, Robert Kennedy was assassinated and stations stopped playing the song because of the line “I shot a man in Reno/just to watch him die.” Columbia insisted they remix the song to edit out the line. When the album was rereleased, it hit the top 40 on the national charts, rose to number one on the Top Country Albums chart and number 13 on the Pop Albums chart. The album received rave reviews and was certified Gold; he also won two Grammys for it.

His Career Is Reborn

Source: (Golden State)

After At Folsom Prison, the album which helped to revitalize his career, Cash released another album in 1969, At San Quentin, which was a bit more produced than Folsom Prison. Cash also became an advocate for prison reform. With a revitalized career, he landed a variety show, The Johnny Cash Show, on ABC, which ran from June 7, 1969 until March 31, 1971. During the 58 episode run, he hosted a variety of musical talent and Hollywood royalty.  

After Folsom

At Tennessee Prison. Source: (Country Rebel)

Cash retained his outlaw image, and his first prison album has continued to be recognized as one of the greats.  Cash released two additional prison concert albums, including A Concert Behind Prison Walls, which he recorded in the Tennessee State Prison and released in 1974. On this album, he was joined by Linda Ronstadt, Roy Clark, and Foster Brooks. At Folsom Prison has retained its legacy, as it has been widely acknowledged as one of the greatest albums of all time.

Tags: Classic Albums | Country Music | Johnny Cash | Johnny Cash At Folsom Prison | Live Albums

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Cyn Felthousen-Post

Writer

Cyn loves history, music, Irish dancing, college football and nature. Social media is also her thing, keeping up with trends and celebrities with positive news. She can be found outside walking or hiking with her son when she's not working. Carpe diem is her fave quote, get out there and seize the day!