Johnny Cash was one of country music’s first “outlaws,” but the music industry was still surprised in 1957 when he played a concert at Huntsville State Prison in Texas. Over the next decade, Cash performed over 30 prison shows and recorded albums during at least three of them. (The shows at California’s Folsom Prison and San Quentin became the most famous). Here are ten little-known facts about the Man in Black’s prison concerts.
1. Columbia Records repeatedly rejected Cash’s requests to record a prison concert.
Cash started playing at prisons in response to fan mail from inmates who identified with his songs (especially “Folsom Prison Blues”). Soon he discovered that “prisoners are the greatest audience that an entertainer can perform for. We bring them a ray of sunshine into their dungeon, and they’re not ashamed to respond and show their appreciation.” He suspected that their excitement and gratitude combined with the thrill of performing in a dangerous venue would create the perfect setting for an album. His record company disagreed -they thought the concerts would kill Cash’s career and hurt the label’s image. But when Columbia brought on producer Bob Johnston -known for being a bit wild himself and for bucking authority (as well as producing for Bob Dylan)- that stance changed. Johnston readily approved the country star’s idea.
Columbia remained tight-lipped about the performance and the release of Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison in 1968, still believing the album would never sell. But it did… an incredible 500,000 copies in one year. Sales were boosted by Cash’s tough guy image (he wore solid black clothing, used profane language, had a gravelly voice, and fought an on-again-off-again addiction to drugs). To help the cause along, Columbia released exaggerated ads claiming Cash was no stranger to prison. Which brings us to…
2. Cash never served time at Folsom, or any other prison.
He did seven short stints in jail, though, for drug- and alcohol-related charges. his song “Folsom Prison Blues” was instead inspired by the 1951 movie Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison. According to biographer Michael Streissguth, another influence was Gordon Jenkins’s song “Crescent City Blues,” from which Cash “borrowed” so heavily that when his version was recorded on the Folsomalbum, the original artists demanded -and received- royalties.
3. Cash inspired future country music star Merle Haggard.
Haggard was serving three years at San Quentin Prison for armed robbery and escaping from jail when Johnny Cash took the stage there in 1958. When Haggard later told Cash that he’d been at that concert, Cash said he didn’t remember Haggard performing that day; Haggard replied, “I was in the audience, Johnny.” In fact, he was sitting in the front row and was mesmerized by Cash. He and his fellow inmates identified with Cash’s lyrics about loss and imprisonment.
Haggard reminisced, “This was somebody singing a song about your personal life. Even the people who weren’t fans of Johnny cash -it was a mixture of people, all races were fans by the end of the show.” Haggard also soon realized that he shared Cash’s talent for making music and for speaking to the struggles of the working class. He joined the prison’s country band shortly after Cash’s concert and penned songs about being locked up. After his release in 1960, Haggard sang at clubs until he eventually became a country superstar himself.
4. The Live “Folsom Prison Blues” was too grisly for radio play.
Cash’s declaration “I shot a man in Reno/Just to watch him die,” followed by an inmate’s shriek of joy, was edited by radio stations. But the hollering wasn’t real. It had been dubbed in by Columbia Records since the prisoners had been too enthralled by Cash’s performance to whoop it up during songs.
5. Cash’s band smuggled a gun into Folsom.
Johnny Cash and his bassist, Marshall Grant, often performed a comedy skit with an antique cap-and-ball gun that make smoke. It was a prop -but it was a real gun. Grant accidentally brought the weapon inside his bass guitar case to the 1968 show. A prison guard spotted it and politely took it away to the warden for safekeeping until the concert ended.
6. Folsom Prison inmate Glen Sherley wrote the song “Greystone Chapel” and credited Cash with changing his life.
Glen Sherley was in Folsom Prison for armed robbery, but he also loved music. Before Cash arrived for the 1968 show, Sherley recorded the song “Greystone Chapel” at the prison chapel. Appropriately, it was about a man whose body was imprisoned but his soul is freed by religion. Cash’s pastor, who also counseled inmates, smuggled the tape out to Cash, who learned to play the song the night before the show. After seeing Cash perform his song, Sherley vowed to make a mark with the musician. Once he was released from Folsom, he went to work for Johnny Cash’s publishing company, House of Cash. Sherley later remarked, “I was a three-time loser when John reached out his hand to me in 1968, and since then I sincerely believe that I have become a worthwhile person and can contribute to society.”
7. Cash’s concert at Folsom landed him his own musical variety show: The Johnny Cash Show.
FOLSOM PRISON BLUES
Cash noted, “I’ve always thought it ironic that it was a prison concert, with me and the convicts getting along just as fellow rebels, outsiders, and miscreants should, that pumped up my marketability to the point where ABC thought I was respectable enough to have a weekly network TV show.”
8. When Johnny Cash recorded At San Quentin in 1969, he didn’t know the lyrics to one of his most famous songs.
I was the first time cash had performed “A Boy Named Sue,” written by poet Shel Silverstein, so he had to read the lyrics from a sheet he’d stained with coffee. And before playing “Starkville City Jail,” cash explained that he was thrown in the slammer for picking daisies and dandelions at two in the morning. (By other accounts, he was breaking curfew, drunk in public, and trespassing.)
9. Cash brushed up on his Swedish for a show overseas.
In 1972 Cash went to Stockholm, Sweden, where he recorded the album Pa Osteraker at a Swedish prison. Between songs, he impressed and thrilled the inmates by introducing some of his songs in their language.
10. At the 1969 show, Cash’s song “San Quentin” nearly incited a riot there.
He’d just written the song the night before, and its inflammatory lyrics like, “San Quentin, may you rot and burn in hell,” clearly struck a chord with the audience. The prisoners clamored and stomped until he repeated the song. Shrieking and jumping up on tabletops, they were so close to rioting that the guards drew and cocked their guns and the camera crew backed untoward the exit doors. According to producer Bob Johnston, Cash later said of the hair-raising moment, “I knew that if I wanted to let those people go, all I had to do was say, ‘the time is now’ And all of those prisoners would have broken…I was tempted.” (But of course, he didn’t.)