The Trail

Why Did Johnny Cash Play at Folsom Prison?

7/24/2023 | By Johnny Cash Trail| Folsom Prison, Johnny Cash

Johnny Cash performed over 4,300 times across the globe at numerous notable locations. However, the Man in Black's most popular concerts and albums were recorded and performed behind the walls of prisons both in America and abroad. Despite his outlaw image, Cash never actually served time in prison himself.

So what led him to play some of his most iconic performances behind bars?

Beginnin' with the Blues

Cash first began performing at prisons in the late 1950s. After he recorded the hit song, "Folsom Prison Blues" in 1955, inmates all over the country would write to him and ask him to play at their prisons. His very first concert at a prison was at Huntsville State Prison in 1957, which received a great reception and inspired him to continue playing for prison audiences. The following year, he performed at San Quentin.

A decade later, Cash would perform his most well known prison concert and, arguably, the most well-known performance of his career.

At Folsom Prison

In the early days of his music career, Cash rode the popularity of his hit songs, "I Walk the Line," "Understand Your Man," and "Ring of Fire" into the late 1960s. After a slight decline in popularity, Cash wanted to reinvigorate his career.

At the same time, Columbia Records was also going through a leadership change in the country portion of the label. Bob Johnston, known for having more erratic behavior and a willingness to disagree with studio executives, ousted two other producers that recorded previous albums for Cash and took over himself. Cash saw this as an opportunity to pitch his idea of recording a live album at a prison, to which Johnston enthusiastically agreed. Johnston then called both San Quentin and Folsom Prison, with Folsom being the first to answer.

Cash held two performances at Folsom Prison on January 13, 1968, at 9:40 am and 12:40 pm, in case the first one wasn't satisfactory. MC Hugh Cherry introduced the event and encouraged the inmates to respond to Cash's performance. Carl Perkins kicked off the show with "Blue Suede Shoes," followed by the Statler Brothers performing "Flowers on the Wall" and "This Old House."

Cherry instructed the inmates not to cheer for Cash until he introduced himself. The film Walk the Line (2005), a Cash biopic, started with this moment. Cash began both shows with "Folsom Prison Blues" and performed various prison-themed songs like "The Wall" and "Green, Green Grass of Home." He also included songs of despair, such as "Dark as a Dungeon." June Carter joined Cash for duets, and after a break, Carter recited a poem while Cash performed "The Legend of John Henry's Hammer." The concerts concluded with Glenn Sherley's "Greystone Chapel."

Beyond the Bars of Folsom

While his live At Folsom Prison album and performance is one of Cash's most well-known, it wasn't the only penitentiary where Cash played for inmates during his career.

Cash played San Quentin State Prison in 1958, which included amongst its audience, Merle Haggard. Haggard was inspired by the concert and post his release, went on to pursue music of his own. During the show, Cash performed the song "San Quentin," about an inmate's hatred of prison. The song received such an enthusiastic response from the audience that Cash immediately played an encore. This encore performance was released a decade later in 1969 — a year after the Folsom Prison album was recorded — called, Johnny Cash at San Quentin. A documentary was filmed at San Quentin along to accompany it.

In all, Johnny Cash performed at least 30 prison performances across the United States and even a Swedish prison in 1972.

How Folsom Honors Johnny Cash Today

After Cash released At Folsom Prison (1968), the album left a lasting effect on the City of Folsom. The City is honoring the legacy of Cash with the Johnny Cash Trail, a 2.75-mile-long walking and biking trail with planned art installations dedicated to Cash and his prison performance. 50 years after the iconic performance, you can weave your way through the trail, passing by Folsom Prison, acknowledging the intertwined histories of Cash, Folsom, and the prison itself.

Johnny Cash's remarkable career spanned over 4,300 performances worldwide, leaving an immeasurable mark on music history. While his concerts at renowned venues garnered significant acclaim, it was his captivating performances within prison walls that truly defined his legacy.

Despite his rebel persona, Cash never experienced incarceration himself. So, what motivated him to bring his music to the incarcerated? It all began with his influential hit, "Folsom Prison Blues," which sparked a flood of letters from inmates requesting his presence. From his inaugural prison concert at Huntsville State Prison to the iconic shows at San Quentin and Folsom Prison, Cash connected intimately with incarcerated audiences, even inspiring fellow artists like Merle Haggard. The impact of these performances lives on, with Folsom City honoring Cash's legacy through the Johnny Cash Trail—a path that intertwines the histories of Cash, Folsom, and the prison itself. As we journey along this trail, we celebrate the enduring power of Cash's music and the unique connection he forged with those behind bars.

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