It may have been nearly fifty years since Johnny Cash took to a prison stage to record a live performance in front of an audience of inmates and guards, but that single event was the turning point that revived the musician’s career and made Folsom Prison the most well-known institution in the world. It’s an event that continues to inspire a new generation of fans today, and one that has inspired a one-of-a-kind project that could only be found in Folsom.
Welcome to the Johnny Cash Trail
The City of Folsom is paying tribute to the legacy of Johnny Cash’s live performance at Folsom Prison and the impact it had on the city with an incredible project that brings fine art, music, history, and the raw natural beauty of Northern California together along the Johnny Cash Trail.
Go for a walk or bike ride along the Johnny Cash Trail in Folsom and you will experience breathtaking views of Folsom Lake, the American River, and sweeping vistas of the Sierra Nevadas and beyond. But that’s not all you’ll find along the trail. Because the trail will also be home to eight awe inspiring fine-art sculptures inspired by the legacy of Johnny Cash.
You can immerse yourself in musical history on this interactive outdoor exhibit as you marvel at the larger-than-life statues, and hear the words and music of the Man-in-Black himself play through an intelligently designed smartphone app as you explore each piece.
Each art work along the trail has it’s own story. This is the story of Folsom Prison Blues.
Folsom Prison Blues: The Song, the Story, and the Sculpture
In 1968, Johnny Cash had nearly two decades experience in his musical career. But personal issues were overshadowing the musician’s talents, and he was beginning to be better known for his wild antics and struggle with addiction than his songs and lyrics. He was struggling for a comeback and losing relevance (and radio play) to his country music audience.
Cash had an idea to do a prison performance. It wouldn’t be his first - Cash had been performing for prison audiences for over a decade. What Cash didn’t realize at the time was this performance would be unlike any other. The resulting live album At Folsom Prison was a hit, soaring to the top of music charts, earning critic’s approval, and revitalizing Cash’s waning career.
Cash kicked off his performance by singing a song he had first recorded in 1955: Folsom Prison Blues. The song has become one of his most popular and well-known. Written from the point of view of an inmate who is inside the prison for shooting a man in Reno “just to watch him die,” Folsom Prison Blues has become an anthem for the ages.
To this day, Folsom Prison Blues continues to resonate with new generations of Cash fans with its spirit of rebellion, regret, and its wistful longing for freedom.
Folsom Prison Blues inspired artist Adan Romo of Romo Studios to create a towering sculpture that evoked those feelings for one of his fine art works for the Johnny Cash Trail. But there is another emotion that really drew the artist in when contemplating Cash’s prison performance, as well.
“One of the things that drew me to Johnny Cash and his connection to Folsom Prison was that he went in there … to make a connection to the inmates and to give something to these people who were considered the outcasts of society. I like this idea that both sets of people, both the inmates and Johnny Cash, were transformed by this performance.” - Adan Romo
Romo was compelled to bring this sense of transformation to his sculpture, Folsom Prison Blues, which at initial glance is a series of towering, black poles that stretch nearly 15-feet up towards the sky; the cold steel bars evoking a sense of entrapment and imprisonment.
But as you walk around the piece and look at it from a different angle, Romo’s sculpture reveals the art and beauty within. A laser-cut image of Cash emerges from the hard metal bars.
The sculpture itself transforms from asture prison-like bars to a stunning reminder of the power and beauty of music. The likeness of Cash, holding a guitar and playing just like he did that day for the downtrodden outcasts in the prison, appears to remind the viewer that transformation is possible. The piece is also a reminder that sometimes a fresh perspective and new way of looking at a situation is all you need to escape from a seemingly hopeless situation.
Adan Romo has taken the spirit of Cash’s song and envisioned a larger-than-life piece of fine art that transports you back to that day in 1968 when Cash performed at Folsom Prison. You can walk among the black metal bars, and then experience the transformation as you see Cash’s likeness appear in the towering steel. Cash’s performance gave those men in Folsom a moment of escape from the grim reality of their incarceration, and in turn that performance helped transform his career.
The story of Folsom Prison and the story of Johnny Cash will be forever intertwined. The institution was an unlikely place to revive a legendary musical career, yet that’s exactly what happened when Johnny Cash took the stage in front of prison inmates and guards at Folsom. From that day forward, Folsom Prison would become one of the most well-known institutions in the world, and a permanent part of Cash’s history, as well.
It’s this connection between Cash and the prison that has inspired the artworks that will soon become a part of the Johnny Cash Trail, an incredible tribute to the man who will forever be associated with Folsom Prison and the City of Folsom itself. You’re invited to discover the art of the Johnny Cash Trail, and to feel the power of transformation that is waiting for you in works like Folsom Prison Blues.