2018 marks the 50th anniversary of one of the greatest country records of all time: Johnny Cash’s At Folsom Prison. Recorded at Folsom State Prison on January 13, 1968, this live album revitalized Cash’s career, reaching #1 on the country charts and #15 on the national album chart. In honor of this landmark anniversary, Country Tonite has put together a brief history of At Folsom Prison and its legacy.
From “Folsom Prison Blues” to Playing at Folsom Prison
Johnny Cash had a longstanding interest in life behind bars. When he was serving in the Air Force in Germany, the singer-songwriter watched the movie Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison, which inspired him to pen the hit song “Folsom Prison Blues” in 1955. Although Cash did spend a few nights in jail for misdemeanors, The Man in Black never did hard time.
In 1968, Cash’s professional and personal life were in a downward spiral. He had not had a hit song in a number of years, he was battling an addiction to prescription pills, and he had gained a reputation for missing concerts and appearing dazed on stage.
It was at this low point in his career that Johnny Cash decided to record an album at Folsom Prison outside of Sacramento. The country star had previously played a concert at the maximum-security prison in 1966, at the urging of a reverend who preached at his church. Johnny and his band liked playing prison concerts because, as Cash’s drummer W.S. “Fluke” Holland noted, “If he did something the audience didn’t like, they couldn’t leave.”
A Concert Designed for Inmates
Johnny Cash’s At Folsom Prison wasn’t simply a greatest hits concert, it was specifically tailored for those on the inside. Many of the songs related directly to life in prison, including “Folsom Prison Blues,” 25 Minutes to Go, ”“The Wall,” and “Green, Green Grass of Home.” Cash even performed a song written by Glen Sherley, an inmate at Folsom, called “Greystone Chapel,” which was about finding God in the prison chapel. As journalist Robert Hilburn put it, Cash “designed every song for that audience and their emotional needs.”
The At Folsom Prison album is actually comprised of two concerts performed at the facility on the same day, with 14 tracks taken from the morning show and just two from the more subdued afternoon show. Cash and his band performed on a stage set up in the cafeteria, behind death row. With gun-toting guards watching the audience’s every move, the atmosphere for the concerts was tense.
The Man in Black easily won over the crowd, as they viewed the outlaw singer as one of their own. Although the inmates had been warned not to stand, some did so anyway, and Cash shook hands with audience members in the first row.
The Legacy of “At Folsom Prison”
Although Columbia Records initially did little to promote the album, At Folsom Prison was a smashing success, catapulting Cash to superstardom. The album sold more than 3 million copies and the live version of “Folsom Prison Blues” was a Top 40 hit. Throughout his career, Cash would record a number of other live albums at prisons, including At San Quentin, Pa Osteraker, and A Concert Behind Prison Walls.
Cash’s experience playing at Folsom transformed him into a prominent advocate for prison reform. He was deeply concerned about young, first-time offenders being locked away with murderers and career criminals. Cash testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee’s subcommittee on national penitentiaries in 1972 and even spoke with President Nixon in the Oval Office as part of his visit to Washington.
At Folsom Prison was named one of the 100 greatest albums of all time by both Rolling Stone and Time. In 2003, the album was chosen by the Library of Congress for inclusion in America’s National Recording Registry.
Hear Classic Country at Country Tonite
Here at Country Tonite in Pigeon Forge, TN, we love Johnny Cash and often perform some of his hit songs at our shows. For more than two decades, Country Tonite has been delighting audiences of all ages with a musical review that includes heaping helpings of classic country, along with gospel, today’s country hits, comedy, and plenty of American patriotism. It’s not hard to see why Country Tonite has been voted the “Best Show in the Smokies” year after year. To start planning your next visit to Country Tonite, purchase tickets to our Pigeon Forge show!