Part paved cycling trail, part interactive public art exhibit, the Johnny Cash Trail pays homage to the legacy of Johnny Cash in Folsom, CA. While the trail’s grand opening occurred in 2017, the history of the Johnny Cash Trail actually began over 50 years ago.
Before it began to take form in the offices of Folsom’s City Hall, the seeds for the Johnny Cash Trail were planted in a penitentiary that has since earned worldwide notoriety.
What is the History of the Johnny Cash Trail?
Before there was a trail, there was a prison performance. And that performance forever altered the career of a musician and the future of a small Northern California city.
1968: Johnny Cash Performs Live at Folsom Prison
In 1955, Johnny Cash and Sun Records released Folsom Prison Blues, a song Cash had written during his time enlisted in the United States Air Force.
The song hit the #4 spot on the Billboard Country Western Chart and invitations to play at prisons began pouring into country music’s most loved “outlaw.”
"Hello, I’m Johnny Cash."
After performing at Texas’ Huntsville State Prison and California’s San Quentin, Cash had the idea to record a live album in front of an audience of prison inmates and guards. His bad-boy reputation served him well during his prison performances; the inmates were enthusiastic about the musician who had his own well-publicized brushes with the law.
On January 13, 1968, Cash took the stage at Folsom Prison. He was joined by his band, the Tennessee Three, as well as performers Carl Perkins and the Statler Brothers.
Cash opened the show with Folsom Prison Blues.
Four months later, Columbia Records released Cash’s album Live at Folsom Prison album. It was a huge success, revitalizing Cash’s career at a time when it was waning and making Folsom Prison one of the most famous prisons in the world.
2012: Folsom Seeks to Honor Cash’s Legacy
The City of Folsom is known for many things: its natural scenic beauty, Gold Rush history, Folsom dam, and tech-industry jobs. But for most people, there’s only one thing that comes to mind when they hear Folsom: Folsom Prison Blues.
From the time Live at Folsom Prison debuted and climbed to the #1 spot on the Billboard Country Western charts, Cash fans began to make pilgrimages to the East Gate of Folsom Prison.
And they continued to do so for decades to come.
In 2012, the City of Folsom began thinking of ways to honor the lasting legacy Johnny Cash had on the town.
How could the city celebrate the contributions of Cash while still incorporating the other elements that made the Northern California town unique?
The Johnny Cash Trail.
Folsom was already home to an expansive, world-renowned trail network. The American River Bike Trail, a 32-mile trail connecting Folsom to Sacramento, starts in Historic Folsom. Cyclists love Folsom, from Folsom Lake to Lake Natoma along the American River system.
The City dreamed of a trail that would connect Historic Folsom to Folsom Dam with a bike trail that passed by the prison.
But the vision didn’t stop there.
Because what Folsom really wanted was to create an interactive public art exhibit along this trail, allowing visitors to immerse themselves in the life, music, and memory of Johnny Cash. With sign-off from the Cash Family and Trust, it was time to move forward with this incredible project.
2013: Cindy Cash Helps Select Artists for the Johnny Cash Trail
The City of Folsom knew it needed world-class artists to pull off this incredible vision. Johnny Cash’s daughter, Cindy Cash, joined the Art Selection Panel to help choose the winning artists from twenty official proposals from artists around the world.
By the end of the selection process, two artists were chosen to bring their visions to life along the Johnny Cash Trail. Adan Romo, a local Sacramento artist whose work can be seen at Folsom Lake College, the Sacramento Courthouse, and the State Capitol Grounds (among others), was chosen to create all but one of the sculptures for the Johnny Cash Trail. Gary Tillery, an artist from Illinois, was selected to create the final piece of art.
Meet the artists of the Johnny Cash Trail
With the artists selected, it was time to move on to the first phase of trail construction.
2014: Phase 1 of the Johnny Cash Trail
In 2014, The City of Folsom completed the first phase of the Johnny Cash Trail project. The first phase included the construction of the Johnny Cash Overpass Bridge, which was modeled after the infamous East Gate of Folsom Prison. It also included the first 1.2-mile section of paved Class I bike trail. Johnny Cash’s daughter Roseanne was onsite for a ribbon-cutting ceremony to open the Johnny Cash Trail.
Roseanne Cash opens the Johnny Cash Trail
2017: Johnny Cash Trail Grand Opening Huge Success
On October 14, 2017, the City of Folsom celebrated the completion of Phase 2 and the Grand Opening of the Johnny Cash Trail. Over 600 runners and 150 cyclists registered to participate in a community bike ride/ fun run on the completed trail. Musicians played country music for a crowded festival. Cindy Cash, who had played a role in selecting the art for the trail, returned for the Grand Opening ceremony.
“If my dad could see all of you people here, 14 years after he died, he would say, ‘Why me? Why did everyone do this for me?’” Cash said emotionally to the crowd. “I wouldn’t miss this for anything. This is very special to my heart,” said Cash. “And I know if dad were here he would be extremely overwhelmed and grateful. I know I am.”
The second phase of the trail included completion of the 2.5-mile paved Class I bike trail, an underpass crossing to safely take pedestrians and cyclists beneath Prison Road, a corten steel Donor Wall honoring trail supporters, and the construction of Robbers Ravine Bridge, a wooden bridge spanning a deep ravine behind Folsom’s Lion Park and the Folsom Zoo.
Runners cross the Robbers Ravine Bridge along the Johnny Cash Trail on opening day.
2021: The Johnny Cash Trail Installs the First Art Piece
In 2021, the Folsom City Council was able to approve and move forward with the installation of the first art piece for the Johnny Cash Trail: Cash’s Pick.
Crafted out of black bronze and featuring Cash’s signature, Adan Romo’s sculpture of a 7-foot tall guitar pick is the perfect piece to spotlight the beginning of the trail.
"I thought it would be appropriate to start the trail the way Cash would have started his music, which was simply by taking a pick to his guitar," explains Romo.
You are Instrumental in Bringing Art & Music to the Trail
Bringing the incredible works of art to the Johnny Cash Trail is a community effort. While construction of the trail, bridges, overpasses, and underpasses was funded by various grants, the artwork is being funded by the support of generous donors and supporters of the project.
Cash fans, country music fans, cycling enthusiasts, and community members are helping bring this interactive art experience to life. The Johnny Cash Trail is a one-of-a-kind interactive experience celebrating the life, music, and legacy of Johnny Cash in Folsom.
You can be a part of this incredible trail history. Support the Johnny Cash Trail today.