PLAYING TO THE FORGOTTEN: Why Johnny Cash went to Folsom Prison to make a live record, by Michael Streissguth (Arthur, 2004)

Originally published in Arthur No. 12 (September, 2004)…


Why JOHNNY CASH went to Folsom Prison to make a live record, as told by Michael Streissguth. Photography by Jim Marshall

Excerpted from Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison: The Making of a Masterpiece by Michael Streissguth. Copyight © 2004 by Michael Streissguth. Reprinted with permission of Da Capo Press.

You’re starting fresh. We don’t even care what you’ve done. You act like a man here, we treat you like a man. You get stupid with us, we get stupid back. And if you don’t understand what that means, that means if you want to start fighting with us, then we’re going to start fighting back with you. And we’ll kick your ass. 

—Folsom Prison guard to newly-arrived Folsom inmates. 

Although Jimmie Rodgers uttered grizzly murder ballads in the 1920s and dozens of others had before and after him, very few artists of Johnny Cash’s stature recorded hit songs in the 1950s with lyrics as brazenly violent as I shot a man in Reno/Just to watch him die. Nor did any artist sound as if he or she could have pulled off the bloody deed. The Kingston Trio won a country and western Grammy in 1958 for “Tom Dooley,” yet few could imagine the well-scrubbed young men arriving late for dinner, much less stabbing “her with my knife”; and the honey-voiced Jim Reeves scored a hit with the treacherous “Partners” in 1959, but Gentleman Jim was the song’s Voice of God narrator, well distanced from the gory scene in a miner’s cabin. Cash’s gallows baritone, though, suggested that its owner just might gun down a man—even worse, a woman—and enjoy watching him—or her—squirm. 

“Folsom’s” homicidal line and its interpreter’s sawed-off shotgun delivery birthed a half century of myth, convincing many Americans that the rangy, dark-eyed man from Arkansas had done hard time for shooting a man when he had merely stewed in jail a few nights after alcohol and pill binges. But the myth endured. His audiences clung to it and over the years, Cash came to realize that trading on the myth—his tight association with the criminal world—stirred his audience’s imaginations and pocket books. Nobody bought the myth more willingly than prisoners. “After ‘Folsom Prison Blues,’ the prisoners felt kinda like I was one of them,” said Cash. “I’d get letters from them, some asking for me to come and play.” 

Cash and the Tennessee Two first responded to a striped invitation in 1957, agreeing to play Huntsville State Prison in Texas. At the time, nobody with a top ten hit even considered performing inside prison walls, much less reading a prisoner’s letter. But Cash went ahead with the pioneering show, and although nobody remembers any fanfare around the date, they do remember a soggy day, a makeshift stage, shorted electric guitar and amps, Johnny picking and singing with no mic (and no Luther Perkins on guitar), and dozens of happy, happy men. “By doing a prison concert, we were letting inmates know that somewhere out there in the free world was somebody who cared for them as human beings,” said Cash, years later. 

From Huntsville, Cash courted a long-standing relationship with San Quentin State Prison, California’s oldest and one of its most notorious. When Cash first brought his show to San Quentin on New Year’s Day, 1958, a young man in the crowd convicted for a botched robbery attempt glimpsed his own future. Merle Haggard, who’d been sent up in 1957 for a three-year ride, sat spellbound by Luther’s picking and Cash’s showmanship and demeanor: “He was supposed to be there to sing songs, but it seemed like it didn’t matter whether he was able to sing or not. He was just mesmerizing.” The day inspired Haggard, who would know his own extraordinary career in country music. He channeled the gift of country music tradition from Cash that day, just as Cash had inherited it from the Louvin Brothers on the WMPS radio of his childhood and Ernest Tubb and Jimmie Rodgers and others, but Haggard’s recollection of the show also illustrates what Cash was delivering en masse to the prisoners: diversion, inspiration, solidarity. “There was a connection there,” continued Haggard, “an identification. 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.” 

Over the next ten years, Cash logged some 30 prison shows, forgoing compensation but developing a hardened anti-prison sentiment. He witnessed the ravages of prison life in his audience, read about them in letters from prisoners, and heard about them from Rev. Floyd Gressett, Cash’s pastor in California, who frequently counseled imprisoned men. An image of life wasted by incarceration, now based on observation rather than a movie, took form in Cash’s mind. 

The inmates’ plight roused an innate compassion in Cash that often led him to act on behalf of others. Time after time, throughout his life, he slowed down to offer his hand, to orphanages, to tornado victims. He often recalled a scene from Memphis where, stepping out onto Union Avenue after signing his first contract with Sam Phillips, he encountered a panhandler to whom the perennially light singer gave the last few cents in his pocket—like the widow in the book of Mark who dropped all her coins in the temple box. After gaining fame, he had supported the American Indian, performing shows to draw attention to their cause, recording the somber tale of their plight on the album Bitter Tears, and forcefully promoting his recording of “Ballad of Ira Hayes,” which brilliantly illustrated the American Indian’s plight. He constantly drew attention to the sweat and toil of anonymous blue-collar workers because back in Dyess, Cash and his family had lived sweat and toil. Young Cash also saw all around him depravity and utter poverty that far exceeded whatever struggles the Cashes encountered. While some might dismiss the world’s cruelty or just fail to notice, Cash allowed it to impress him, as it did when he observed indigent, rootless neighbors like those he described to biographer Christopher Wren. “Across the road on the Stuckey plantation … was a three-room shotgun shack. Every year, a different family would move in and ask us if they could farm part of the crops. They were in dire poverty. They’d come with rags on their backs and maybe a skillet tied on their wagon. Mostly they just walked in. We lived in the big house across the road. My daddy wouldn’t let us play with their kids sometimes because they’d have lice. Once there were three brothers, all older than I was, called Big ’un, Little ’un and Cotch, and a sister named Annabelle. Annabelle tried to take me into the bushes and scared me to death. Annabelle was sixteen. I was twelve.” To Wren, he described people to whom death was matter of fact: a father who buried his baby in a ditch bank, a six-year-old who poisoned his father. He digested such wretched dramas, realizing their actors deserved his pity and help. As an adult, he carried those scenes with him as if they were sacred beads, invoking Christ’s golden rule as he walked with Indians, common people, and prisoners. 

By and by prison reform became his grand crusade, although he blanched at the term: “I didn’t go into it thinking about it as a ‘crusade,’” said Cash when writer Paul Hemphill encountered him in the late 1960s. “I mean, I just don’t think prisons do any good. They put ’em in there and just make ’em worse, if they were ever bad in the first place, and then when they let ’em out they’re just better at whatever put ’em in there in the first place. Nothing good ever came out a prison. That’s all I’m trying to say.” 

He realized that his name could call attention to prison issues and his shows could salve—if only fleetingly—troubled, bored prisoners. “From the very first prison I played in 1957 … I found that a concert is a tension reliever. A prison is always full of tension, but sometimes it gets to the breaking point and there’s trouble. I’m not saying that our concerts have prevented trouble, but who knows? … That’s our purpose, to give them a little relief.” 

In the wake of his 1968 show at Folsom Prison and the popular album that came of it, Cash’s prominence on the prison reform issue ballooned. What for more than ten years had been charity work—a little tension relief for the prisoners and him—became a cause in 1968. The show, which also revived his career, anointed him as a major spokesperson on prison reform. He had the ears of governors, testified in Congress on behalf of prisoners, and continued to shine a light into prisons at home and abroad through the 1970s. 

The Christian press, particularly, raised him up as a haggard prophet who envisioned for the mote-blinded churches Isaiah’s dream of an age when prisoners would emerge into the day’s light. “No one, least of all Johnny Cash, is advocating immediate release of all convicts,” declared Southern clerics Donald G. Shockley and Richard L. Freeman. “But in the name of Him who was united with thieves in his death the churches might blend their voices with a country bard who, in one respect at least, sees Isaiah’s vision somewhat more vividly than they do.” When Cash died in 2003, Christian Century eulogized a man who wished redemption for society’s hell-bound, pointing to his performance of “He Turned the Water into Wine” at San Quentin in 1969: “It takes no stretch to get to the point: If Jesus could do that with something as ordinary as water, then he can make something out of the vulgar, the lonely, the lost—all the sinners, caught or not.” 

Nobody, least of all Cash, probably ever suspected that the Folsom show would sling him into the vortex of prison reform where the priests, politicians, and padlocked angrily debated. If nothing else, the prospect of recording at Folsom appealed to the commercial side of Cash, to the showman who believed that his hit song and the prison from which it took its name should be united with tape rolling. The showman also knew that if the prison’s inmates were suitably rowdy the whole mess could make for a fabulously electric album. 

Folsom Prison sits above the American River, fulgent amid hills of waving grasses and scrubby oaks. The long approach from the road on a gently curving lane might well be the entrance to the Hamilton or Trask ranches in Steinbeck’s East of Eden, but there is no white-washed, rooster-red farmstead to be found. Hammered into the rocks some 25 miles northwest of Sacramento, the fortress of granite stares down its suppliants. Bleached, forbidding walls climb eastward from the deep river gorge to the central prison campus only to cascade down to the prison frontage south of the main buildings. Guard towers hover on the shore of the river, then farther up the bank, and then finally atop of the steep cliff overlooking the river. “Its physical appearance is frowning and terrible,” a former inmate once wrote. “Its buildings are low-squatting, resembling the lines of a bull dog.” 

Indeed, Folsom growls at visitors, however long they plan to stay. Inside, sharply textured granite walls are as thick as the length of a man, and they rise to high ceilings that stretch out over the inmates like a steel sky. Windows line the top walls, far out of reach of the prisoners, permitting only a muted light which drifts down to the cell block floors, like a fog. The dirty glow inside reveals a maze, a series of box-like rooms and rifle-barrel corridors through which citizens circulate from cell to job to mess hall to exercise yard to cell. Halfway up the walls, perched on gunwalks, unsmiling prison guards peer down on the daily commute, ready to cut down with their polished rifles anyone who would disrupt the gray routine.

Although Folsom State Prison is actually located in appropriately named Repressa, California, it takes its name from Folsom, California. When Cash first visited in the 1960s, before strip malls and tony subdivisions with pretentious names took over, Folsom was a husk of a gold mining town, silent and far away from the vitality of Sacramento and San Francisco. Although the town lay barely a mile from its namesake, in Cash’s day it might as well have been separated from the prison by the tallest peaks in the nearby Sierra Nevadas. It was, like the prison, a city unto itself. 

The prison joined the burgeoning Folsom community in 1880 after a power company that sought to dam the American River offered the state of California 350 acres of land outside Folsom to build a prison in exchange for convict labor to help build the dam. After protracted political wrangling among state prison officials and legislators over whether or not to build anew in Folsom or expand the Golden State’s first prison in San Quentin, the convict labor agreement was sealed and construction on Folsom commenced in 1878. Two years later, Folsom’s first cell block completed, the prison welcomed its first inmate, an arsonist named Chong Hing. 

Behind Folsom’s forbidding medieval edifice, a veritable city sprawled. In an era when convict labor was the accepted form of punishment and rehabilitation, inmates scattered each day to jobs in the prison’s ice plant, dairy, farm, or slaughterhouse, while the less fortunate pulverized rocks in the prison’s commercial granite quarry. 

Folsom was a maximum security prison. As the mortar between the blocks in the newly built prison hardened, so did its culture. Ed Morrell, the self-proclaimed vigilante bank robber whom Jack London immortalized in his novel The Star Rover, landed in Folsom in the first years of 1900s. Writing about his experiences inside after his pardon, he called Folsom a “Man Killing Jail,” a hole where many would rather die than go on living. “Convicts not hardened to endure its slave racking toil and tortures have deliberately faced the guns of their eager executioners, … have blindly hurled themselves into the rushing waters of the River to go down at least to a more merciful death. Such tragedies were common at the time I entered Folsom.” Punishment at Folsom was harsh. A show of disrespect once landed Morrell in the derrick, the punishment chamber, where guards handcuffed him and hung him by the wrists for seven days. Not long after, in an attempt to wheedle a confession from him, they battered him and later burned lime around his cell, a torture that inflamed his eyes, nose, mouth, and internal organs. Morrell saw guards club men at will and, in a particularly appalling moment, shoot two inmates who jumped into the roiling American River to rescue another inmate. 

A hard place of hard guards, the prisoners too were hard, and they matched their captors, wit for wit. In Morrell’s time, a band of daredevil men shamelessly counterfeited money under the warden’s and guards’ noses, and still others planned intricate escapes, fashioning weapons from scraps of metal and tapping allies to plant weapons in the nearby hills. Mutiny loomed; the murderers, rapists, and robbers were more than capable of it. 

By the 1920s, tales of the danger that permeated Folsom drifted into American society, crowning Folsom over the ensuing decades with a dubious celebrity akin to Al Capone’s and Bruno Hauptmann’s. Newspapers followed the ugly matron on the hill with perverse fascination, waiting for reports of the latest uprising or bizarre tale to emerge. And the public lapped it up. The coverage of Folsom was better than a serial mystery. 

However, by the 1960s, different stories emerged from Folsom. 

Although the nation’s reporters still filed stories macabre, dramatic, and loony (such as a hostage taking in the prison chapel or the arrest of a would-be escapee who had tried to make a helicopter), the story about Folsom and all prisons across America was reform. As social consciousness awoke from one of its periodic drowsy spells, observers in many stations questioned the effectiveness of incarceration. Lurid stories of earlier decades gave way to serious reporting about prisons, which many had come to realize were merely crime schools or, at best, dead ends. Reports chronicling ugly and potentially explosive conditions regularly slipped through the nation’s prison walls: ridiculously long sentences, prison riots and slave-like working conditions. Investigators in Cash’s home state of Arkansas discovered a torture device which “consisted of a crank telephone and a generator wired to an inmate’s big toe and scrotum”; this incredible invention used in the 1960s was the brainchild of a prison doctor. 

By almost unanimous consent, prisons were condemned. Even the California Department of Corrections’ own studies questioned the effectiveness of prison rehabilitation efforts, confirming what any prisoner or prison administrator already knew: that the penitentiaries launched men and women back into a world of crime, only to see them boomerang back again. Recidivism rates across the nation stood at 70 percent in 1968, embarrassing proof of the American prison system’s failure. 

In California, many legislators and prison administrators were ready to knock down the prison walls, proposing support of institutions without walls where convicts could move about freely and enjoy conjugal visits. For others who studied the prison question, wholesale parole of thousands of inmates was the answer. “There is evidence,” said a legislative report, “that larger numbers of offenders can be effectively supervised in the community, at insignificant risk and considerable savings in public expense.” The same report recommended shuttering San Quentin. And where would Quentin’s most violent and depraved go, the ones for whom parole was out of the question? Folsom. Nobody spoke of closing Folsom. 

Sociologists and the like who studied failing prisons in the 1960s need only to have looked at Folsom for a model. On paper, the prison offered hope in the form of training programs, education, work skills, and counseling —and many seized those opportunities—but below the cellblocks that towered five levels high, there was a hole where murder, prostitution, and hatred—personal and racial—thrived. An inside-inside prison, the max, its prisoners saw nobody but each other, the guards, and a few staffers, unlike the boys of lower-security San Quentin or Vacaville who interacted with more free people, administration employees, and others at prison-wide banquets and employee-inmate baseball games. But above the American River, there were long-bill hats, frowns, and grunted acknowledgments. “Everybody had that old, mean look on their faces,” said one lifer. 

The prisoners in Folsom were old hands in the criminal justice system, many on their second, third, fourth go-rounds, some aspiring to live out their lives behind bars despite whatever vague legislated promise of freedom lay in front of them. “Why should I want to leave?” cracked one Folsom denizen in 1968. “I run the block. I’m a millionaire in cigarettes. I can get all the ice cream I want. My sex life is different from yours, but you get used to that.” The men of Folsom were older, rarely under 25 or 30. They were killers, rapists, three-time losers, four-time losers, even. They had reached the end of the line, or they were nearing it. Younger prisoners generally were diverted away from Folsom because of the fights they’d spark among leering older convicts eager to rape them or claim them for pimping. 

Folsom’s packs were divided along racial lines, their names giving away their ethnic affiliation: the Black Guerilla Family, the Aryan Brotherhood, the Mexican Mafia, the San Antonio Family. Sustained by racism and fear, the gangs protected the weaker of their ethnicity and controlled a vibrant trade in prostitution, drug dealing, gambling, and extortion—all within the prison walls, thanks to corrupt prison guards and good contacts on the outside and in the mail room who could traffic drugs and money in and out of the granite city. Many sought out gangs because they only knew the gang life, while others hid behind their protection or took refuge in the pseudo-family that they were. 

Gangs brought a strange sense of order to Folsom. In the absence of city blocks, train tracks, and other demarcations of turf, skin color chalked lines through the prison. And although the lines sometimes became battle lines, they sometimes preserved the peace. Gang justice cooled hot heads and subdued brewing violence throughout Folsom. Leaders worked with each other like diplomats of clashing super powers to avoid bloody riots, but their cold war solutions could prove bizarre and tragic. A former Folsom guard recalls an incident when to settle up with the Aryan Brotherhood, the Black Guerilla Family preyed on its own man: “There was one incident, an old black man that lived in Two Building.… They killed him just so that the debt would be even in the eyes of the rest of the inmate population. ‘We took care of the problem so there’s no riot, there’s no war.’ They sacrificed some little old black man just so there wouldn’t be any more problem between the two gangs.… But that satisfied the Aryan Brotherhood. ‘That was okay, we saved face ’cause we went and told you to take care of it and you did.’ Everything revolves around respect and disrespect when it comes to gangs.” 

In the spirit of uneasy cooperation, gangs also united against common enemies: they refused to testify against one another in criminal proceedings stemming from their squabbles, and they attacked child molesters like blood-thirsty soccer thugs lunging at an erring referee. Beating molesters—like settling a gang score—earned gang and prison-wide respect. 

Despite the gangs’ omnipresence, Folsom was known as a place where one could do his own time, remain unaffiliated. All prisoners coped in their own way, with gangs, with dealing in drugs and prostitution, by gambling. Men forgot the absence of women with their sissy or by huddling in their cell with their porn. “You missed cuddling with a woman,” says a former inmate. “You miss your family. Yeah, they come and visit but it’s not like kicking back on the couch with your arm around your mom and dad.” 

There were those who sought chemical escape, through the drugs that were smuggled in or through the champagne of prison life, a putrid concoction known as pruno. Imbibers of pruno nicked the ingredients from the kitchen—oranges, ketchup, sugar, and copped yeast from the bakery—and mixed it all in a six-gallon milk bag used in cafeteria milk dispensers. Duct taping a hose from the bag and running it into the toilet to hide the fumes, the slimy mixture would be covered by a blanket and stored under the bunk. Concerned that the hacks would smell and discover the fermenting ingredients, prisoners unceasingly scrubbed their cells with Comet or something with a bleachy smell. Prison moonshiners could cook up a six-gallon bag in about three days and trade it for cigarettes, sex, money. It delivered a stupefying bender. 

What perhaps was more stupefying than the pruno was that all such manner of lawbreaking thrived in a prison, where men were supposed to be reformed of the criminal life. Under the always scanning eyes of prison guards, it seemed unlikely that a prisoner could run his fingertips up and down the bars of his cell without going unnoticed. The guards appeared omnipresent, absent only in education classes and the hospital. Prisoners weren’t necessarily escorted everywhere—like when they walked between their prison building and the yard, or to the dining room—but eyes peered down from the gunwalks that surrounded almost every prison space. Their eyes and their Winchester 30-30s were like x-rays, stripping the prisoners of their privacy, reducing them to fish in a bowl. Plenty of times those rifles cracked with fire, to disperse big fights mostly. Warning shots fired in the air echoed sharply through the yard to scatter the rioters, followed by a whistle. If the whistle failed to move the prisoners, the guards fired into the crowd. Prisoners froze when they heard the whistle, or they hit the ground. 

Days for those who meandered through the yards and corridors of Folsom ended early. Everybody was ordered back to their cells for lockdown and count at 3:20. Twice in the evening they were released, for dinner and showers. Bodies were counted once more, before lights dimmed at ten o’clock. Then restless silence unfolded over the cell blocks, interrupted by hacking coughs, the jangle of guards, and muted conversations. Folsom slept, until sunrise and the next morning’s count. 

Them poor babies were listening to John so hard you could feel it. 

—June Carter Cash on Johnny Cash’s 1968 Folsom Prison Concert 

In the midst of Cash’s hiatus from recording and search for sobriety in the late months of 1967, Columbia Records ushered out of the Nashville studios their popular country star’s producers: Don Law into retirement and Frank Jones into executive management. Law and Jones’ big boss, CBS Records president Clive Davis, announced in October that Dylan-producer Bob Johnston would take the A&R reigns of Columbia-Nashville and, accordingly, assume the production of Cash’s records. A 36-year-old Texan, Johnson was as crazy as Cash was erratic. He dared to buck authority—one Dylan biographer called him an “irascible opponent of studio executives” —and he ran his recording sessions like a hopped-up carnival barker. Session players stared mystified as the producer jumped on the recording console or rambled on over the studio talk-back. “He was one of those wild, unorganized, near Bohemian, types,” observes Don Reid, one of the Statler Brothers. “I don’t know how he ever got it all put together as a record producer.’” 

From his former base in New York, Johnston had worked up an amazing resume by producing Dylan, Simon and Garfunkel, Leonard Cohen, and others in Columbia’s stable of triple crown winners. But he was no stranger to Nashville, having accompanied Dylan to the town for the minstrel’s Blonde on Blonde and John Wesley Harding sessions. 

From Cash’s perspective, this Texas speculator with New York bite appeared to be the gatekeeper who could admit him to a recording date in prison, and he planned to bring up the matter in their first meeting. Throughout the ’60s, Cash had raised the idea with Don Law, but Law couldn’t or wouldn’t sell the idea. It’s not that Law frowned upon Cash’s recording live—he had prepared to record him at the disastrous Carnegie Hall show in 1962—but it’s possible that the aging A&R man failed to see the appeal of a prison show. Or he simply struck out trying to sell the idea to Columbia’s brass. One staffer of that era says Cash appealed directly to Columbia Records boss Goddard Leiberson, recalling a terse exchange of letters between frustrated singer and unmoved executive. Columbia’s masters, it’s likely, feared that any prison connection would taint the label’s good name, or, likely too, were skeptical of such an enterprise’s sea legs. Whatever the barriers were, Johnston immediately vanquished them. “After six years of talking I finally found the man who would listen at Columbia Records,” so wrote Cash in the liner notes to At Folsom Prison. “Bob Johnston believed me when I told him that a prison would be the place to record an album live.” According to Johnston’s telling of Cash’s plea, the singer came to him in his new Nashville office as a mafia don with entourage: “I was sitting in the office one day and a black guy walked in, the janitor, with Cash, through the back door. June and everybody was waiting outside. They were afraid that he was dead or got in a wreck or something because he was, at that point, real high.… He sat down and he says, ‘I’m Johnny Cash.’ I said, ‘How you doin’ Johnny?’ And he said, ‘I wanted to talk to you a minute.’ I said, ‘Sure.’ And he leaned back in his chair and he said, ‘I’ve always wanted to go to prison to record and nobody would let me in eight years and I don’t guess you will either.’ So … I picked up the phone and I called Folsom and Quentin, and I got through to Folsom first.” 

As apocryphal as the above may seem, there is no question that Johnston flashed the green light to the Folsom gambit. And when he did, Cash shifted into gear. He asked his pastor Floyd Gressett who knew well “Coach” Lloyd Kelley, the prison’s recreation director—to arrange a date. “I guess I wanted to record in a prison ever since I played Huntsville,” Cash told Christopher Wren. “I thought people would take notice of men that have been forgotten in everybody’s mind. It would be good for them to hear the men’s reaction.” 

The Man in Black neglected to mention to Wren his calculated guess that a recorded prison encounter would make for damn good theater. Altruism aside, Cash knew he had in prisoners an adoring audience that roared for him and stood with him because he did the same for them and because they knew he’d spent a few nights in the clink (or maybe worse). An element of danger in prison also promised to dramatize his album, a line between safety and hell, which Cash—like a Jumpin’ Jack Flash—loved to dance upon. And if the prisoners took him hostage or dared to rise up in some other way? Well, all the more drama then. “That would have thrilled 

him,” says Don Reid, who with the Statlers opened Cash’s Folsom show. “If they held him for about five days. He wouldn’t have had anything to eat. He would have loved that.” Reid further ventures that Cash would have shunned too much security against such flare-ups, or, more to the point, too great a show of security. He was there to be one with the prisoners—it was part of the act and reflected his feelings for the men: Any hint of alliance with the guards would have drawn an unerasable line between him and the captured. And, adds Reid, “it wouldn’t play to his image to be too heavily guarded.” 

After 13 years of recording, Cash knew that latent magic could come to life when tape was rolling, in prison or in the studio. Diving into the unknown and waiting for the ripples paid off many times. That’s why he ignored convention in the studio, shrugging off producers’ advice, forgetting the sacred clock to which recording executives bowed. Don Reid often observed the serendipity that Cash counted on form like a royal flush: “We have seen him go into the studio and actually write songs during the session. He would go totally unprepared and get inspired and write songs. [Then he’d] go get somethin’ to eat, and you’d be there all night. He would come up with something, but he didn’t necessarily go in with anything.” Folsom held the same promise: the gambler’s reward. Now, it all might amount to wasted tape, but something absolutely riveting could emerge too. Cash banked on the latter—but took out an insurance policy just in case. His protection against wasted tape laid in the two shows Cash had scheduled at Folsom: 9:40 and 12:40. If the first show failed to move through the morning like the slipstream and leave him with a generally unblemished concert for the album, the magicians in Columbia’s studios could create the appearance of such a concert by cutting and pasting the two shows into one. 

Bob Johnston may have required a fire policy too. He claimed that his job hung on the line over Folsom: “I remember I got a call from Clive Davis and he said, ‘We hear you’re taking Cash to prison. If you do, it’ll ruin his career and you’ll never do business with CBS again.’ … And I said, ‘Well, you’re the boss.’” 

Clearing the way for Columbia Records to bring recording equipment to Folsom meant wading through reams of red tape, but nobody doubted that Cash’s request would be welcomed by the prison authorities. After all, his “Folsom Prison Blues” of 1955 had contributed to the prison’s infamy, and when he played there for the first time in 1966, the prisoners and corrections officers lapped him up. And how often did a performer of Cash’s caliber and celebrity stop by? Rarely. San Quentin, a medium-max security prison, got the bigger names while entertainment at Folsom mostly meant Saturday afternoon movies, a country and western band led by the local sheriff, or the services of visiting evangelists. Cash’s performances were welcome anytime, with or without recording equipment. They were, as former corrections officer Jim Brown put it, “a way to forget about what’s going on inside. And [you seem to be] outside because somebody from outside is entertaining; they’re here. So it’s kind of like a chance to escape and forget about where you’re at.” 

Cash’s first visit to Folsom in 1966 had ladled up just that kind of escape. 

He performed outside in the prison yard, with old Sara Carter of the original Carter Family—who lived nearby in Calaveras County—sitting in with the heirs to her tradition: Mother Maybelle Carter, June Carter, Helen Carter, and Anita Carter. When Cash brought his show back a year or so later, he’d be walking into a recording session, one in the most unusual of studios. The date was set for Saturday, January 13, 1968. 

During the Christmas holidays preceding the Folsom recording date, Cash’s latest single “Rosanna’s Going Wild” debuted on Billboard’s country music charts. A jaunty tear through the teenage rebellion of a young girl, presumably his daughter Rosanne, the song was nowhere near his best work: He sounded drawn, sapped perhaps by his drug battles and a vigorous fall touring slate. There was little reason to believe that the record’s debut portended a climb to number one because Cash had not reached the top of the charts since mid-1964, when his macho “Understand Your Man” hammered a stake in the spot for six consecutive weeks. The singer’s fallow period seems improbable today, when many just assume that Cash dominated country music between the ages of Hank Williams and Garth Brooks. But Cash had skidded into a long, flat dry spell. The four singles prior to “Rosanna” had flickered briefly on the country charts, and no Johnny Cash album containing new material had hit number one since 1964. The likes of Eddy Arnold, Buck Owens, and Charley Pride elbowed Cash out of the way on the country side, leaving him restless perhaps for another “Understand Your Man.” 

Still, Cash must have been giddy when he and his contingent from Nashville landed in Sacramento for the Folsom rehearsals: the show he had plotted out over many years was only two days away; he was making some progress in his drug war; and his divorce had become final a few days before. He’d gained the freedom to marry June Carter and, thanks to Bob Johnston, had gained the freedom to record in prison. There was good news on the sales front, too: “Rosanna’s Going Wild” was surging unexpectedly to the number two mark on the country charts and was making a brief appearance on the pop charts too. 

In Sacramento, Cash, June Carter, the Tennessee Three, and the Statler Brothers moved into the El Rancho Inn for two days of rehearsing in one of the hotel’s banquet halls. The gang almost never spent so much time preparing for shows. However, on January 13th they would only have one chance—well two, actually—to get it right and, to further complicate matters, Cash was stacking the set list with songs of prison and confinement (including two which he rarely if ever performed), so a little prep work was in order. Dressed casually in sweaters and slacks, amid tables of sandwiches and drinks, the Johnny Cash corps ran through the standards—“Busted,” “I Still Miss Someone,” “Give My Love to Rose”—and the prison favorites—“Folsom Prison Blues,” “Cocaine Blues,” “I Got Stripes.” But one song sucked up the most practice time: “Greystone Chapel” by an amateur songwriter named Glen Sherley who happened to live at Folsom. Cash, the Statlers, June, and the band worked up an arrangement opened by Carl Perkins’ country-funky opening licks. An anthem for the imprisoned, “Greystone Chapel” describes the mind that with Christ has transcended its cell. Inside the walls of prison, my body may be/But the Lord has set my soul free. It promised to be the perfect climax in the drama Cash planned to stage, a message of redemption dispatched by the very criminal mind he’d be entertaining. 

As Cash’s troupe plowed through the last rehearsal in Sacramento, a tuxedoed gent with jet black hair and a hardy gait popped his head in the door to greet Cash. The boss of the Department of Corrections and every thing else in California state government, Gov. Ronald Reagan ushered in an air of glitter in what were otherwise gritty practice sessions. After Reagan swept out of the room, Cash ran through a few more songs and retired for five hours of sleep. The next morning, Cash revisited Sherley’s song, and by seven o’clock he, June, Bob Johnston, and Cash’s father Ray were in limousines traveling 25 miles northeast to Folsom. The others rode in the large camper that Cash usually took on the road. Hours before, two veteran Columbia engineers based in Hollywood— Bill Britain and Bob Breault—had arrived to set up the boxes of recording equipment, running cable between a small makeshift recording room and the dining hall where a wooden stage draped with a welcome banner and straddled by two shotgun-toting guards awaited the performers and audience. Under a blanket of gray clouds, while the engineers toiled inside, the convoy wended up the driveway to the forlorn Folsom Prison city. Coach Kelley and a sparse crowd of photographers and off-duty guards waited to greet them. One of the guards had crossed paths with Cash years before at San Quentin where the singer performed with a nagging cold. Ten years later, he stopped Cash in front of the gates. Was he feeling better this day? Cash nodded. 

Amid the small group of people documenting Cash’s arrival were photographer Jim Marshall, whom Columbia hired to shoot photos for the planned album, and Los Angeles Times reporter Robert Hilburn, who would write liner notes for the first single from the concert and pen a feature story on the concert for his paper. The news media in San Francisco, Sacramento, and Folsom virtually ignored the buzz at Folsom as did the Department of Corrections’ own newsletters and press releases. Only an “Up With People” extravaganza at lucky ol’ medium-max San Quentin got attention in the official prison press. 

Free from the media’s intense gaze, Cash posed uneasily for a few photographs at the main gate before boarding a prison bus that drove them deep into the sprawling compound. Five guards hovered around them. Everybody appeared worried. Stepping off the bus a few moments later, the lines in Cash’s face deepened and shadows of the grim buildings darkened further his black figure. As he looked around outside the bus, his face expressed either trepidation or determination. The Statler Brothers tried with jokes and teasing to gas up the mood, but found few takers: The entire troupe made their way in with few smiles. Cash’s eyes drooped into his cheeks, while June—normally so effervescent—cast her head and eyes toward the asphalt ground. When one of many gates crashed behind them, Cash addressed Jim Marshall: “Jim, there’s a feeling of permanence to that sound.” Marshall—who’d shot a man in Frisco some years before but ducked a heavy sentence—agreed.

Categories: Arthur No. 12 (Sept. 2004) | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

About Jay Babcock

I am an independent writer and editor based in Tucson, Arizona. In 2023: I publish an email newsletter called LANDLINE = Previously: I co-founded and edited Arthur Magazine (2002-2008, 2012-13) and curated the three Arthur music festival events (Arthurfest, ArthurBall, and Arthur Nights) (2005-6). Prior to that I was a district office staffer for Congressman Henry A. Waxman, a DJ at Silver Lake pirate radio station KBLT, a copy editor at Larry Flynt Publications, an editor at Mean magazine, and a freelance journalist contributing work to LAWeekly, Mojo, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Vibe, Rap Pages, Grand Royal and many other print and online outlets. An extended piece I wrote on Fela Kuti was selected for the Da Capo Best Music Writing 2000 anthology. In 2006, I was somehow listed in the Music section of Los Angeles Magazine's annual "Power" issue. In 2007-8, I produced a blog called "Nature Trumps," about the L.A. River. From 2010 to 2021, I lived in rural wilderness in Joshua Tree, Ca.

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