On This Day

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Johnny Cash performs for prisoners at the Folsom Prison, Jan. 13, 1968.

On This Day: Johnny Cash Plays at Folsom Prison

January 13, 2011 06:00 AM
by findingDulcinea Staff
On Jan. 13, 1968, singer Johnny Cash dragged his career out of the doldrums with an album recorded inside Folsom Prison before an audience of inmates.

Folsom Prison Hosts Johnny Cash

Johnny Cash's career needed some help in the late 1960s. He had had no hit songs in a while, and his Tennessee Three band seemed behind the times. Plus, the country music establishment in Nashville shunned him because of his rebellious lifestyle and drug and alcohol addictions.

His girlfriend and future wife June Carter helped Cash turn his life around, and in 1968 he found support from an unlikely quarter: California’s Folsom State Prison.

Jail was nothing new for Cash; he'd been there before as an inmate and a musician, playing his first prison concert in 1957. Cash played in Folsom for the first time in November 1966 at the request of inmate Earl C. Green and Reverend Floyd Gressett.

The concert was a success and the inmates asked for Cash to return; he did in 1968, for the first of his prison concerts to be recorded. Inside a packed prison dining room, Carl Perkins and the Statler Brothers opened the show. “Finally,” writes Gene Beley in the Virginia Quarterly Review, “the one they were all waiting for came out, sat on his stool center stage and said in that deep, God-like voice, ‘Hello … I’m Johnny Cash.’”

Cash played a full set, opening with “Folsom Prison Blues” and finishing with “Greystone Chapel,” a song written by Folsom inmate Glen Sherley and given to Cash a day before the concert. “Inside the walls of prison, my body may be,” it began, “But the Lord has set my soul free.”
The album that followed, “At Folsom Prison,” was a hit and it transformed Cash into a nationally popular musician. “At Folsom Prison” stayed in country music charts for 90 weeks and in the Billboard Top 200 for 122 weeks. He recorded a second prison concert at San Quentin State Prison in June 1969, producing another hit album.

“I've always thought it ironic that it was a prison concert, with me and the convicts getting along just as fellow rebels, outsiders and miscreants should, that pumped up my marketability to the point where ABC thought I was respectable enough to have a weekly network TV show,” Cash wrote in his autobiography, “Cash: The Autobiography.”

Cash became a music legend, recording hit albums until his death in 2003. His career owed much to his prison concerts, which established his image as a man of the poor and downtrodden. “At Folsom Prison” is remembered as one of the greatest ever albums, honored by Time magazine and Rolling Stone as one of the top 100 albums of all-time.

“The whole Johnny Cash story is one of redemption,” says Joe Avila, executive director of Prison Fellowship Ministries, who tried unsuccessfully to put together a 40th anniversary last January. “Johnny was wild at heart, just like these men. But just like him, they can change. They can walk the line.”

Key Player: Johnny Cash (1932–2003)

Born J.R. Cash on Feb. 26, 1932, Cash grew up working on his parents' farm in Arkansas. He had his first music lessons in 1945, but his teacher quickly told him to stop and instructed him to “never change his natural voice.”

In the late 1940s, Cash began entering talent contests and started “singing anywhere and everywhere he could.” He entered the Air Force in 1950, at which time he gave himself the first name “John.” After leaving the Air Force, he formed a band and began recording with producer Sam Phillips of Sun Records in 1955.

As one of the earliest signees to Sun Records, he became part of the “Million Dollar Quartet,” a group that included Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis. In his career, Cash “crafted more than 400 plainspoken story-songs that describe and address the lives of coal miners, sharecroppers, Native Americans, prisoners, cowboys, renegades and family men,” writes the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which inducted him in 1992.

Cash continued recording music up until his death on Sept. 12, 2003 due to complications arising from diabetes. During his career he recorded more than 1,500 songs and won 11 Grammy awards.

His life was immortalized in the 2005 movie “Walk the Line,” starring Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny and Reese Witherspoon as June Carter Cash. Phoenix received an Academy Award nomination for his portrayal of Cash.

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