Prisoners Are the Best Audience: The Challenge of ‘At Folsom Prison’

Johnny Cash
At Folsom Prison: Legacy Edition

The culture of a thousand years is shattered with the clanging of the cell door behind you. Life outside behind you immediately becomes unreal. You begin to not care that it exists. All you have with you in the cell is your bare animal instincts.

— From Cash’s original liner notes to the At Folsom Prison album.

When Johnny Cash walked into the gloomy Folsom Prison on January 13, 1968, he had no idea how it would change his life or the course of popular music — he would put the 40-acre property on the map and the penitentiary would return the favor for him.

His path there was long and difficult but also inevitable. Cash’s early career at Sun Records in the mid-’50s represented a watershed in country music, featuring his booming baritone and chugging guitar, along with Marshall Grant’s bass and Luther Perkins’ brilliantly understated guitar — an amazingly rich tapestry made from very few ingredients. As such, his music was also as compelling a statement of mid-20th century American minimalist music as La Monte Young’s “Trio for Strings” or James Brown’s “Please Please Please”. “Folsom Prison Blues”, one of Cash’s Sun hits, was a mash-up torn from a violent prison B-movie and a lounge song by Gordon Jenkins (“Crescent City Blues”). It would have a long-term impact on his career that even Cash couldn’t have forseen.

Like his label-mate Elvis Presley, Cash bolted to a larger label in the late ’50s to reap the benefits of his rising star. While he was able to turn out hits at Columbia, he was also in the grip of an amphetamine addiction (as dramatized in the recent biopic Walk the Line). His band members recall that he had a self-destructive streak and could be impossible to be around when he was stoned. His miscreant ways landed him in jail a few times but they were one-night stands and not ‘hard time’ per se — this was something that he would be very ambivalent about for a long time to come.

By the mid-’60s, countrypolitan music was the craze in Nashville, mixing in pop sounds and minting money for artists like Jim Reeves and Eddie Arnold. Cash himself had been taking a different, more ambitious path, releasing concept albums about the American West and the Indian a few years before rock bands came up with the same idea. He’d soon conceive of the ultimate concept album and an audacious idea that would propel his career.

Even more remarkable is that he came up with the idea at a crossroads in his life. By early 1968, Cash was fighting off his addiction with help from singer, collaborator, and love interest June Carter, daughter of country music royalty the Carter Family. Meanwhile, his live show had changed dramatically, reflecting the arc of his career. Even early on with the Tennessee Two (Grant & Perkins), Cash made his live shows (as seen on Town Hall Party DVD) memorable events. He was clearly having fun, acting cocky and playing to the crowd all at once, full of smiles, gestures, and asides, occasionally lifting up and aiming his guitar like a rifle during instrumental breaks. In the late ’50s, he’d landed spots on Ed Sullivan’s and Jackie Gleason’s hit TV shows, giving him even more exposure.

By the ’60s, however, his concerts had turned into full-blown reviews. Along with the Tennessee Two, he had a drummer plus a rock legend in tow (Carl Perkins, no relation to Luther) and soon-to-be-stars the Statler Brothers, both employed as warm-up acts and backing for Cash’s own show. Even June’s mother, country legend Maybelle Carter, would join the show, too, alongside daughters Helen and Anita, both of whom had their own solo careers.

It only made sense to capture a Cash show for release, but live albums weren’t a staple of the country music industry at the time. Live albums were just becoming a trend in rock in the late ’60s, with psychedelic groups showing off their lengthy improvisational chops (e.g. the Grateful Dead); previously, they offered little more than bands trying in vein to recreate their hits in front of screaming fans. It wouldn’t be until the ’70s that the live album would become a given for any rock act. But back in the mid-’60s, the only popular genre that was able to exploit this well was jazz, with historic recordings by John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, and others.

A pair of classic pre-psychedelic live albums were instructive about how the medium could be best exploited. James Brown’s 1962 record Live at the Apollo was funded by Brown’s own money when his own label balked at the hit-maker’s idea. It turned out to be a surprise hit, featuring a screaming match between JB and the audience on “Lost Someone”. Similarly, on B.B. King’s now-classic 1964 recording Live at the Regal, the guitarist stroked the crowd well. On “How Blue Can You Get?” his woman disses his car, dinner, and house before he comes to the climax/punchline: “I gave you seven children and now you wanna give ’em back!” he roars and the crowd screams back at him in a moment of intensity that’s impossible to imagine inside a studio. Cash would follow the same path with his first live album and find that similar resistance that Brown encountered.

Other than the progressive idea of a live country album, Cash had an even grander, riskier agenda in mind. In 1956, he played a show with the Tennessee Two at a prison rodeo. In some ways, the show was a disaster — a thunderstorm broke out. Cash remembered that the rain got worse and worse, but a funny thing happened: the crowd responded more to Cash than to the weather. He was soon asked to play at San Quentin where he impressed a young inmate named Merle Haggard to follow a similar path into country music. Cash himself was so impressed by the receptions that he played several more prison shows including one at Folsom Prison in 1966. Contrast that with the previous year where in a fit of rage, he smashed the floor lights at country music Mecca the Grand Ole Opry, resulting in a long-standing ban.

Even before he planned for a live album, Cash already booked an early ’68 show at Folsom Prison, the second-oldest penal institution in California, set up to accommodate the spill-off and dregs from San Quentin prison. Cash’s decision to choose Folsom as a setting for his live album is worth mulling over. “The song ‘Folsom Prison Blues’ brought me to Folsom Prison but there I saw the real human face of the people there,” he would say later. If Cash wanted to make a symbolic gesture and support of prisoners, he could have just brought some reporters (which he did anyway) but he was determined to make this a fully documented event as well. For Cash, this wasn’t just a dependable, receptive audience. Photographer Jim Marshall, who took the iconic cover photo of Cash’s sweat-drenched face, said that he understood Cash’s motivation: “He believed that he was just making the public more aware of the conditions in the prison… He saw himself as an entertainer who could make a difference in their lives, even for an hour.” John Carter Cash (who co-produced the recent Folsom box set) had a similar take on his father’s motivation: “He knew that he was singing for murderers, rapists, and killers but he also knew that he was singing for people that were suffering greater hardships than they were due.”

Haggard would later reckon that Cash saw something of himself in the prisoners and wondered about how he himself might have been one of them, doing a long-time stint. Conversely, a former Folsom guard saw Cash as a positive role model for the inmates, showing them what they could become. Cash’s one-nighters didn’t officially put them among his ranks and though he didn’t play down this connection (or lack thereof), he had very mixed feelings about playing it up. As biographer Michael Streissguth noted, “for the rest of his life, he uncomfortably lived with the myth”.

But making such a strong connection publicly sent a lot of signals about Cash as a person and an artist. In some ways, it seemed that he was more comfortable with the inmates than with the Opry crowd. Also, to some degree, this would also cement his bad-ass status by choosing such a setting for a big performance. Compare that with the later country outlaw movement (Waylon, Willie) or Buck Owens’ historic live album from two years earlier where he opened up Carnegie Hall to country music.

Cash also had a concept to go along with his record. He wouldn’t be performing just any show, but instead a concert of prison-related songs for a crowd of prisoners. This might seem like a weird gimmick, but it was also a bold move, even more so than his other concept albums from the same period. A concept record was one thing but a live concept record conjured up explicitly for the people who are supposedly at the bottom of society’s barrel? The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band from the previous year had opened up the pop world to the idea of concept albums, but Cash had the audacity to take the idea even further. In many ways, At Folsom Prison was a bolder, more daring album than the Beatles’ fawned-over masterwork.

But even a star like Cash had problems getting his label to get on board with the idea. He begged them for years to make his record; luckily, producer Bob Johnston (who was also working with Bob Dylan at the time) believed in Cash and worked with him to make it happen. And so Cash rolled into Folsom at the start of ’68 on an early morning with his troop, though the conditions were far from ideal. Marshall remembered that it was a “somber atmosphere… (there was) no joy here”. An accompanying reporter later admitted, “I was a little nervous.” A huge welcome banner was plastered across the front of the stage, in front of an estimated 1,000 prisoners there to see the show in a dining room — even with the guards on hand, no wonder the reporter was worried. For the morning show, there were PA problems and like many other live albums, the recording had to be goosed a little to get it up to snuff: songs were reordered and cut out, and some cheering was added (as it was for Brown’s Apollo album) for the official release.

After Carl Perkins (doing his hit “Blue Suede Shoes”) and the Statler Brothers warmed up the crowd, disc jockey Hugh Cherry came out to prep the audience, informing them the show was going to be recorded. He instructed them to hold their applause when Cash first appears and instead wait until he gave his signature greeting. The crowd of hardened criminals were happy to oblige — on the unedited box set edition, they’re silent until Cash delivers his famous salutation, “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash”, a grandly simple, poignant statement.

* * *

An old saw about great comedians is that they say what we, the audience, are thinking. Similarly, Cash was able to make a connection with his Folsom audience with song selections made for that particular show, echoing their feelings of hopelessness, loneliness, alienation, and misery. “Folsom Prison Blues” has to start things off and it does with the Perkins brothers’ guitars ringing through and Luther standing there as always stone-faced and expressionless, almost like a ghost. In a roomful of hard-boiled criminals, he was the most intimidating person around.

Entertainer that he was, Cash acted like real comedian now and then, laying on the jokes, mostly about himself. Even on an appropriately gloomy take of “Dark as a Dungeon”, Cash cracks some jokes when he forgets some of the words, which happened a number of times during the show. He reminds the crowd that the show is being recorded, so that they “can’t say ‘hell’ or ‘shit'”, which gets him plenty of laughs, too. “How does that grab you, Bob?” he aks, taunting his supportive producer. Later, when he barely makes it through a harp solo on “Orange Blossom Special”, he feels obliged to take another humanizing poke at himself. Even on wonderfully grim, proto-goth tunes like “Long Black Veil” and “The Wall”, he flubs more lines and elicits laughs from the crowd. And then there was the famous glass of water which he asks for and proceeds to choke on, wondering aloud about the facility’s sanitary conditions (his only real poke at Folsom onstage). The laughs weren’t just limited to the flubs, either: Shel Silverstein’s “25 Minutes to Go” is sharp gallows humor (and didn’t the crowd love the line about spitting in the sheriff’s eye) and “Flushed from the Bathroom of Your Heart” has a title which speaks for itself.

Still, the show wasn’t a total yuk-fest. Returning the favor to Ray Charles’ early ’60s concept albums about mixing country with R&B, Cash covers two of his signature songs: Harlan Howard’s down-and-out “Busted” and a lively clap-along on “I’ve Got a Woman”, where June flubs some words. There’s also misty moments (“I Still Miss Someone”, “Green, Green Grass of Home”), cautionary tales (“Cocaine Blues”), folklore (“John Henry” with its lively, dramatic pauses), lively duets (“Jackson”, where June sounds full of beans) and even some slack moments (a tired take on “Joe Bean”).

But just as Cash began the show dramatically, he ends it dramatically, too, with a tune more meaningful and poignant than “Folsom Prison Blues” itself. Glen Sherley had bounced around different prisons, serving time for armed robbery. While at Folsom, he found other musicians to work with and got the ear of the reverend there, who in turn passed along one of Sherley’s songs, “Greystone Chapel”, to Cash. Sitting up in the front row of the concert, Sherley had no idea what was going to happen when Cash announced on stage that he was going to sing one of the robber’s songs. Sherley jumped out of his seat with glee and reached up to shake Cash’s hand. You couldn’t have asked for a better piece of theatre — Cash performing a moving song about salvation, written by a prisoner. It was the perfect way to end the show and bring the whole concept full circle.

Cash and Johnston planned an afternoon show for the same day so they could pick out the best songs for the record, but only two tunes made the cut on an otherwise less-than-compelling set. Even the first show could have been much tighter; it was full of mistakes and enough goofs to make country clowns Homer and Jethro jealous. Nevertheless, history was on Cash’s side and the whole weight of the idea behind the album made up for any shortcomings as far as he was concerned.

And he was proven right. Released four months after the show in May 1968, At Folsom Prison wasn’t a pivotal live album or country album or Cash album — it was a piece of history onto itself, flaws and all. It transcended country circles, making it all the way to #13 on Billboard‘s album charts and forcing a mainstream audience to take country music seriously. Although Gram Parsons gets credit for making country cool to a non-country audience, Cash certainly did his part, too. Eventually, the Library of Congress would include the album in the National Registry. After following up with another prison-concept album, this time at San Quentin in ’69, Cash hit the top of Billboard‘s country and pop album charts, plus he had a huge hit single with Silverstein’s “A Boy Named Sue”. To top it off, ABC-TV offered him a regular primetime show, which ran for two years and featured such luminaries as Dylan, Haggard, Louis Armstrong, Eric Clapton, Creedence Clearwater Revival, and Neil Young. And Cash also finally got June to accept his proposal on stage, one month after the famous Folsom show.

Cash’s extraordinary rise to mainstream acceptance on his own terms was only part of the aftermath of Folsom. Having made a point to portray prison life on his albums, he soon became a champion of prison reform. As Streissguth points out, he even found converts among B.B. King (who would record a live album at Cook County Jail in 1970) and Dylan (who championed and helped to free Reuben “Hurricane” Carter). Prison reform, which saw its heyday in the late 1800s and early 1900s thanks to now-forgotten pioneers like Dorthea Dix and Samuel June Barrow, had pretty much been pushed to the back-burner until Cash took up the cause again. As turbulent as 1968 was for American society in general, Cash saw a microcosm of it in Folsom and a system that was even less even-handed and harmful — that outside reality meant little to an institution with its own set of rules and where time stopped and seemed endless.

Cash himself had mixed feelings about issues like the death penalty, wondering aloud about how “we have to kill in order to stop the killing” yet admitting that not all criminals are necessarily innocent. But riots and murders at Attica and San Quentin prisons in 1971 helped push the issue of reform to the forefront and Cash was up at Capitol Hill the following year, lobbying not only a Senate committee but also Richard Nixon on the need for change.

And though he couldn’t use his star power to push the government for real reform, Cash was satisfied that he could at least help one man. Sherley was released from Folsom in 1971 in part because Cash guaranteed that he would help him with his music career. He was good to his word, first getting a label to release a live album that Shirley recorded in jail, and including Sherley as part of his live show after he was paroled.

But just as his lobbying was well-intentioned and ultimately futile, so was Cash’s support of Sherley and his career. The two of them appeared alongside Linda Ronstadt and Roy Clark at Tennessee State Prison for a famous 1976 show that was later immortalized as A Concert Behind Prison Walls. Though Sherley’s presence onstage with Cash sent a strong message about reform, eventually the former Folsom inmate backslid, turning to booze and drugs, becoming erratic, and threatening Cash’s band. Even his family couldn’t be around him anymore. Sherley became despondent, eventually leaving the music biz to work for a cattle company while he lived in a truck. In 1978, he took his own life with a shotgun. As pained as his family was, some of them admitted that they weren’t surprised by his actions and none of them blamed his mentor for Sherley’s downfall. Cash himself sent money to the family to cover the costs of the funeral.

Cash would play one final concert at Folsom in 1977, but didn’t make a recording of it, which was a nice humble gesture. He ultimately gave up on lobbying for reform and doing prison shows at all by the end of the decade. His daughter Rosanne Cash (a great singer and songwriter in her own right) thought that he was frustrated by the lack of progress on reform. “It was too much of a burden,” she mused. She also thought that alongside the lack of progress in Washington and Sherley’s sad demise, Cash might have hit a brick wall, choked by “an over-inflated sense of his power”.

Whatever the reason that Cash withdrew from anything to do with the penal system, nothing could erase his accomplishments. He couldn’t change the laws or one gifted songwriter’s life but he made a meaningful, long-lasting gesture. Truth be known, Cash’s cause is still one worth pursuing. According to U.S. Department of Justice statistics, as of 2007, there were about 2.4 million people in jail in America, giving it the dubious distinction of having the highest incarceration rate in the world. The prison population has been growing steadily over the last few decades, with overcrowding getting worse and worse in many institutions. The standard answer to these problems is “build more prisons”, as if that would solve all the problems and stop recidivism.

If someone were to take up the cause again, then that might be Cash’s greatest legacy related to the famous Folsom concert. Surely there’s a few gangsta rappers out there who don’t just give lip service to offenders, right?

The quotes and many other pieces of information about Cash’s life and career come from Michael Streissguth’s liner notes to the At Folsom Prison reissue and accompanying DVD, and Streissguth’s book Johnny Cash: The Biography (Perseus, 2006).