Record Bin: How Johnny Cash broke down the bars “At Folsom Prison”

Authored By pitulah

Live albums are notoriously difficult to pull off. And with a hundred convicted inmates surrounding you, I’d imagine that it would be far more difficult than under any other circumstances-at least, any that an artist is likely to come across. But on Jan. 13, 1968, Johnny Cash did just that.

The time he spent recording at Folsom Prison wasn’t his first time in jail, either as an inmate or a performer. He had made several trips to prisons around the U.S., beginning with Huntsville State Prison in 1957. Encouraged by the warm reception from the prisoners and the wealth of fan mail that came to him from jails across the country, Cash performed at a number of different correctional facilities in the lead-up to the recording of “At Folsom Prison.”

Having drawn inspiration from when he was serving in the United States Air Force Security Service-as well as a viewing of Crane Wilbur’s “Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison”-he seemed to develop an odd sort of kinship with these incarcerated men. This sense of personal association manifested itself in his ode to prison life, “Folsom Prison Blues.” And so the road to Folsom Prison itself was set in motion.

But the road getting there wouldn’t be an easy one-it was fraught with record label tentativeness and a prison system that didn’t want someone coming in and relating to convicted felons on a personal level. In the eyes of the law, they were there to do time for their crimes, and that was it. But Cash saw something different. It wasn’t that he saw innocent men in these jails, but he was able to see the men and not their crimes for a few hours-and maybe he allowed the inmates to see that for a brief period, as well.

Columbia Records had little faith in this prison project, intent as they were on promoting a new crop of rising pop stars and not rehashing music from their own roster. Even the album’s lead single, “Folsom Prison Blues,” was given a lackluster push by the label. But despite this lack of interest, the song charted on the Billboard 100 in May 1968; and after receiving rave critical reviews and an abundance of commercial success, the song and album went on to sell millions. 

For the show, Cash brought along June Carter, Carl Perkins, The Statler Brothers and The Tennessee Three (Cash’s personal backing band). They would play most of Cash’s hits (as well as those of the respective artists) and some that weren’t regulars in past shows. Specifically, the band learned how to perform “Greystone Chapel,” a song written by inmate Glen Sherley. Two concerts were performed-one at 9:40 a.m. and one at 12:40 p.m., with the majority of the album being culled from the first performance.

Songs like “Cocaine Blues” and “The Long Black Veil” were given new life in this environment and sounded better than they had in years. Others like “Jackson” and “Orange Blossom Special” felt invigorated and newly born, as if Cash were singing them for the very first time. Even surrounded by bars and concrete walls, these songs felt unrestrained and loose. Folsom was a turning point for Cash, both personally and professionally, and he wouldn’t soon forget his brief tenure there.

The title track was pulled from radio station rotation shortly after the assassination of Sen. Robert F Kennedy because of the lines “I shot a man in Reno/just to watch him die” were deemed too disrespectful, given the circumstances. The line was excised (against Cash’s wishes) at the behest of the record label, and the single was rereleased, reaching No. 1 on the country charts and the top 40 on the national charts. Spurred on by the song’s success, the album itself placed high on both the country album charts and the pop charts-marking one of the first times an album had managed to do just that.

“At Folsom Prison” would go on to be certified Triple Platinum by the RIAA in 2003-a landmark achievement by any measure, especially for a live record. But Cash never thought of this as simply a live album, a cash grab to try to reclaim some of his previous fame and notoriety. He had honestly been moved by the sentiments expressed in letters written to him by these men and was simply looking to give them a respite from the confines of their cells.

These songs transcended genres and charts and sales figures; they were a gesture of goodwill. Johnny Cash, ever the bearer of the trials of the outlaw and the common man, opened that prison and let those men see the light of day, even if just for a very short time. Buoyed by the success and acclaim garnered by the album, he entered into a particularly fruitful series of recording years. All his life, he had done his best to stay out of jail; but for a few hours in 1968, he wouldn’t have been any other place.

Joshua Pickard covers local and national music, film and other aspects of pop culture. You can contact him on Facebook, Twitter or by email. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.