Johnny Cash and Folsom Prison. You can’t speak about one without mentioning the other. Johnny Cash was born in Arkansas, lived in Tennessee, was married in Kentucky, and recorded albums in Tennessee. Yet somehow the place most associated with this country music legend is a city in Northern California: Folsom.
What were the events that tied Johnny Cash and Folsom together, and how did the country artist become synonymous with a Northern California town?
Before his musical career began, a prison in Folsom began inspiring Cash’s music.
In 1953, while serving in the United States Air Force and stationed in West Germany, Cash saw a movie Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison. The movie inspired him to write “Folsom Prison Blues”. (Cash also pulled inspiration for lyrics and melody from a song by Gordan Jenkins, “Crescent City Blues”.) Two years later, Cash recorded Folsom Prison Blues with Sun Records producer Sam Phillips.
As Cash’s musical career took off, his outlaw persona was formed. Although he was never in prison himself, several very public misdemeanor arrests and his “bad-boy” antics onstage and off led to a public persona of Cash as an outlaw and rebel.
As a result, invitations to perform at prisons began pouring in.
Cash performed at many prisons over the years, beginning with his first performance at Huntsville State Prison in Texas in 1957, and followed by a San Quentin Prison performance in 1958.
It would be a full decade later before Cash performed in front of an audience of inmates and guards at Folsom Prison.
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Why Did Johnny Cash Perform at Folsom Prison?
By 1968, the success of Cash’s early career was waning. He hadn’t written a strong country music hit for two full years, and his onstage antics and history of no-showing at concerts made him “damaged goods” on the concert circuit.
Cash had an idea to record a live album during a prison performance, and was pushing Columbia Records to approve it. He sent letters to the record company, pleading for the chance.
Cash finally got his approval for a live prison performance from Columbia exec Bob Johnston, Johnston, who was also Bob Dylan’s producer, had a reputation as a rebel himself. Johnston enthusiastically embraced the project and gave Cash the go-ahead to proceed.
Both Folsom Prison and San Quentin Prison were selected as possible venues for Cash’s performance. Requests were sent to both California penitentiaries, and Folsom was the first to say yes to the proposal.
January 13th, 1968: Johnny Cash Plays Live at Folsom Prison
Cash was joined by June Carter, Cash’s band, the Tennessee Three, Carl Perkins, and the Statler Brothers at Folsom Prison. Two performances were scheduled that day, just in case the first show didn’t go well. Cash opened both shows with a performance of “Folsom Prison Blues.” Cash ended both shows with “Greystone Chapel”, a song written and recorded by Folsom Prison inmate Glen Sherley. The first performance was a hit; nearly every song used on the resulting album came from that first show.
Four months after his Folsom Prison performance, Cash’s record At Folsom Prison was released. The album was a success.
- Its single, “Folsom Prison Blues”, charted on the Billboard Top 100 on May 25, 1968.
- By October of that year, At Folsom Prison was certified Gold by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) for shipping over 500,000 units.
- In 2003, it was certified Triple Platinum by the RIAA for shipping over 3 million units.
Cash’s prison performance and resulting album had reignited the musician’s waning career. He was not the only one impacted by the album’s success.
Folsom Prison, California’s second oldest penitentiary, was suddenly launched into the limelight.
At the time of his performance, the City of Folsom was a small Northern California town with fewer than 5,800 residents.
As the popularity of Cash’s album continued to soar, curious Cash fans started making the City of Folsom, and Folsom Prison itself, a tourist destination. Folsom Prison guards, previously tasked only with keeping inmates inside the penitentiary, were faced with the unusual new job of keeping visiting Cash fans out of the maximum-security prison.
Even today, decades after Cash’s performance, fans continue to make their way up to the prison entrance to take photos at the gate.
Folsom Honors Johnny Cash with Art Trail Experience
Almost 50 years after the concert, the City of Folsom has found a unique way to pay tribute to the legacy of Johnny Cash and his Folsom Prison performance and the impact it had on the Northern California town: the Johnny Cash Art Trail Experience, known as “the Johnny Cash Trail.”
The Johnny Cash Trail project is a public art installation that includes eight interactive works of art and a 2-acre Legacy park, all of which are located along a Class-I bike trail which takes visitors past Folsom Prison property.
The City of Folsom originally started the selection process for the Johnny Cash Trail artwork in early 2013 with a national search for professional artists. Two artist teams consistently and unanimously rose to the top, earning the panel’s highest ranking scores in every form of evaluation.
The Art Selection Panel for the Johnny Cash Trail selected Sacramento-based Adan Romo of Romo Studios, LLC. and Gary Tillery of the Fine Art Studio of Rotblatt-Amrany in Highwood, IL. to create the artwork for the Johnny Cash Art Trail Experience. Together, these two artists and their teams will be creating eight interactive sculptures, the Johnny Cash Trail art.
The Johnny Cash Trail is Folsom’s way of acknowledging the intertwined histories of Cash, the City, and the prison itself. Folsom Prison inspired Cash in the early days of his career, then helped him to revive it a decade later. Cash is an integral part of the history of the City of Folsom, as well. The art trail will bring these histories together in an awe inspiring project that combines music with art and nature to continue to inspire the community and fans in the future.
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