Johnny Cash, the legendary country music singer and songwriter, was known for his powerful storytelling and captivating stage presence.
However, one of the most iconic moments in his career took place in 1968 at Folsom State Prison in California. Cash performed for an audience of inmates, leading to a truly unforgettable experience for all who attended.
Prepare to be amazed by the incredible story of how Johnny Cash revolutionized American music with his groundbreaking Folsom Prison concert!
Behind the Music: The Origins of ‘Folsom Prison Blues’
Well, actually, with a documentary film.
The “Man in Black” spent a significant portion of his early life stationed in Germany while serving in the U.S. Air Force. From 1951 to 1954, Cash was posted at Landsberg, Bavaria, in West Germany.
Music, aside from writing letters to Vivian Liberto, played a central role during his time there. Cash, who had always been inclined towards gospel and country music, formed a group with fellow airmen, humorously named the “Landsberg Barbarians.” Together, they would perform classics by artists like Ernest Tubb, Jimmie Rodgers, and Roy Acuff.
This period also saw Cash purchase his first guitar and a tape recorder, which he described as a “fascinating piece of equipment.” The recorder became central to the creative life of the Landsberg Barbarians, allowing them to capture their musical sessions.
Landsberg was also where he watched the film “Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison.”
The movie’s portrayal of life inside the infamous institution resonated with Cash. Although he never spent time in prison, the documentary profoundly impacted him, and he felt compelled to pen a song depicting the inmates’ lives and struggles.
The resulting song, “Folsom Prison Blues,” became a top-five single when it was released in 1955.
The following year, Cash included it on his 1957 debut album, “Johnny Cash with His Hot and Blue Guitar!”
It should be noted that the lyrics of “Folsom Prison Blues” do take some creative liberties. When asked why the song’s main character served time in California’s Folsom Prison after shooting a man in Reno, Nevada, Cash responded that it was “poetic license.”
Despite this, the song remains a powerful narrative of the experiences of those incarcerated at Folsom Prison.
Following the release of “Folsom Prison Blues,” Cash found himself inundated with letters from inmates across the nation, each one requesting him to perform in their facility.
This overwhelming response led to his inaugural prison concert at Huntsville State Prison in Texas in 1957, which he would follow up with an iconic event a few years later.
Live at Folsom Prison: A Historic Concert
On January 13, 1968, Johnny Cash took the stage at California’s Folsom State Prison, performing for an audience of inmates. The concert took place in dining room #2 of the facility.
Inspired by “Folsom Prison Blues,” this live performance marked a turning point in Cash’s career, who had been experiencing a decline in his musical success.
Throughout the event at Folsom Prison, Johnny Cash was joined on stage by June Carter and Carl Perkins. His backing band, the Tennessee Three, featured the talented Luther Perkins, a guitarist instrumental in defining the unique “boom-chicka-boom” sound of Cash’s music.
Cash connected with the inmates during the concert by playing songs they could relate to, such as “I Got Stripes” and “Cocaine Blues.” One of the concert’s highlights came when Cash performed “Greystone Chapel,” a song written by Folsom inmate Glen Sherley.
This song was unexpectedly included in Cash’s setlist, leaving Sherley both surprised and elated. The backstory is equally intriguing. Sherley had initially gifted a recording of the song to the prison’s Chaplain, Rev. Floyd Gressett, who then passed it on to Cash.
Sherley’s presence at the concert reinforced the bond between Cash and the prison audience.
Walls and Wires: Recording Cash at Folsom
The performance at Folsom Prison was not just a concert but also a live recording session.
The album “At Folsom Prison,” released in May 1968, became an instant classic and is now considered one of the greatest live albums ever.
Recording inside a prison, of course, didn’t come with its unique challenges.
Columbia Records and producer Bob Johnston had to navigate bureaucratic red tape to bring recording equipment to the prison. However, the prison authorities were welcoming, partly because Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues” had already contributed to the prison’s legacy.
Once that was out of the way, Johnston and the crew had to contend with the prison’s poor acoustics.
One of the biggest issues was isolating the sounds of the audience and performers from the prison’s echoing hallways. To solve this, Johnston built a makeshift studio inside the prison, using plywood, acoustic tiles, and blankets.
While prisoners cheered and clapped throughout the performance, Johnston suggested that Cash should stay quiet during these moments for fear that the cheers would overpower the recording.
In his autobiography, “Cash: The Autobiography,” Cash recalled how he had to constantly remind himself to remain silent when the audience broke into applause.
In contrast to many studios that used overdubbing, artificial reverb, and multi-tracking extensively, the Folsom recording setup was simple: only four microphones were plugged into a four-track recorder.
This minimalistic approach symbolized the rawness of the recording, reminiscent of the early days of Sun Records. The result was a scratchy record with sparse production, distinguishing it from many other celebrated albums of the 1960s.
The album also featured a unique piece of equipment: an Electro-Voice RE20 microphone placed between gates and bars to capture the sound of Cash and his bandmates performing “behind the walls.”
The “At Folsom Prison” Album: A Game Changer
Initially, Columbia Records held modest expectations for the album, so much so that it was notably absent from their summer portfolio ads, which showcased other artists.
There was no advance advertising in the trade press, hinting at the company’s reservations about the album’s potential success. This skepticism was further underscored by the risk of the first single, “Folsom Prison Blues,” being overlooked, as many might have assumed it was just a re-release of the 1955 Sun classic.
However, as the summer of 1968 progressed, the critical reaction to “At Folsom Prison” shifted dramatically.
The album received overwhelmingly positive reviews, with mainstream and underground media lauding it. Publications like The Village Voice and Rolling Stone, representing the underground press, quickly recognized the album’s bold message and raw feel, even before mainstream journalists acknowledged its significance.
The ripple effects of the success of “At Folsom Prison” and its successor, “At San Quentin,” were profound. These back-to-back triumphs paved the way for Cash to host his own musical variety show on ABC Television, which aired from 1969 to 1971, further solidifying his position as a stalwart in the music industry.
Marshall Grant, who was part of the iconic event, later reflected on the album’s unexpected success. He believed it was the public that recognized the album’s significance.
The album’s unpolished and authentic sound resonated with fans, creating a unique chemistry that neither the artists nor the record company had anticipated. In the end, the fans propelled “At Folsom Prison” to its legendary status, proving that sometimes the most unexpected projects can leave the most lasting impact.
The album became one of the best-selling live albums ever, going platinum five years after its release. It also earned four Grammy nominations in 1969, winning two for Best Male Country Vocal Performance and Best Country Performance by a Duo or Group.
The original version of “At Folsom Prison” contained a seven-minute version of “Folsom Prison Blues.” This song version has been certified by the Recording Industry Association of America and included in the United States National Recording Registry.
In later editions, the album’s so-called “Legacy Edition” features extended tracks and additional content.
The release of At Folsom Prison marked a pivotal moment in Cash’s career, as it came after his period with Sun Records and led to a resurgence in popularity.
Behind the Bars and Beyond: The Resounding Legacy of Cash’s Folsom Concert
The legacy of Johnny Cash’s iconic performance at Folsom Prison has been preserved through multiple reissues and editions of the album over the years.
One notable version is “Folsom Prison: Legacy Edition,” which was released on October 14, 2008, by Columbia/Legacy. This edition offers fans a more comprehensive listening experience than previous releases and has been well-received by critics and listeners.
The Legacy Edition consists of expanded audio content, including additional tracks not present in earlier editions. This enriched collection allows audiences to gain a deeper appreciation for the raw excitement and emotional intensity of the live performance.
Regarding chart history, “Folsom Prison: Legacy Edition” has achieved significant success within various music charts worldwide. For instance, Music Canada, the Canadian music industry’s trade association, recognized the album’s enduring popularity and impact on the genre.
The Irish Recorded Music Association, which monitors music sales in Ireland, also noted the album’s performance and its place in their charts.
Folsom Prison: Beyond the Song
Biographer Robert Hilburn provides a comprehensive account of Cash’s Folsom Prison concert in his book, which reveals how the event provided a turning point for the legendary artist, whose estate would later be mostly inherited by his son.
Cash’s passion for advocating for prison reform made the concert a deeply personal experience, creating an intense connection with the inmates. It was vital in shaping the collaboration between Johnny Cash and songwriters Merle Haggard and Glen Sherley, an inmate at Folsom Prison.
Cash’s “At Folsom Prison” album garnered rave reviews from critics worldwide. Richard Goldstein of The New York Times praised its raw energy, stating, “The result is an album that vibrates with tension, excitement, and empathy.”
Pitchfork Media also lauded the record, bestowing a rare perfect score of 10, highlighting Cash’s performance’s emotional depth and authenticity.
The success of “Folsom Prison Blues” and its subsequent live recording proved that country music could reach a much wider audience, making it one of the genre’s most important albums.
The success of Cash’s performance at Folsom Prison also underscored the power of music to connect with people in unique ways, transforming an otherwise mundane event into an unforgettable experience.