When you think of Johnny Cash, what’s the first album that comes to mind?
Ask anybody, and nine out of ten of them will tell you his 1968 At Folsom Prison album featuring the hit song, “Folsom Prison Blues.”
And 54 years ago today, January 13th, 1968, Johnny Cash stepped on stage (for two shows actually) in front of 2,000 inmates at the Folsom State Prison in Folsom, California, to record that iconic album.
After writing the song in 1955, inspired by the 1951 crime drama Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison, he got the idea to record a live album at the California prison, but the label wasn’t into it.
Johnny was heavy into the pills at the point, the label was pretty fed up, he wasn’t having the success he was having in the ’50s, and the idea of cutting an album at a prison just wasn’t something they wanted to put money into.
Finally, with the help of his girlfriend at the time, June Carter, as well as his band the Tennessee Three, Carl Perkins and the Stalter Brothers, Johnny arrived at Folsom Prison with the chance to play a live show at the prison, and record a live album in the process.
According to the Washington Post, Rev. Floyd Gressett came to see Johnny the night before and gave him a demo of a song called “Greystone Chapel,” written by an inmate at the prison named Glen Shirley.
Cash stayed up late to learn the song and would go on to perform it the next day with Sherley was sitting in the front row.
Johnny Cash Takes The Stage
According to Robert Hilburn (author of Johnny Cash: The Life), who attended the concert, the scene was tense ahead of showtime, but Johnny captivated the crowd.
“He really felt that he had made the right decision, that he had something that audience wanted. He didn’t just do a greatest-hits show that day; he designed every song for that audience and their emotional needs.
Once the music started, you could see people were eating out of his hand.”
Cash opened both shows (there was a morning and an afternoon show in case something went wrong with the first recording) with “Folsom Prison Blues,” and closed them out with “Greystone Chapel.”
At one point during “Dark As The Dungeon” and inmate makes Johnny laugh, which he apologizes for after the song:
“Sorry about that little interruption there but I just wanted to tell you that this show is being recorded for an album released on Columbia Records, so you can’t say ‘hell’ or ‘shit’ or anything like that… how does that grab ya Bob?
They’ll probably take that word out.”
And they did…
A few short months later on May 6th, Cash officially dropped the album, titled At Folsom Prison, and it saw near immediate success. It hit number one on the U.S. Top Country Albums, and has often been referred to as one of his best albums of all time.
But more than that, it catapulted Johnny Cash into a full blown musical icon, transcending country music. Pop fans loved him, rock fans loved him, folk fans loved him, and he became a huge advocate for prison reform as well.
He would follow it up a year later with another prison album, At San Quentin, which was a smashing success, and also land a gig hosting The Johnny Cash Show on ABC, which ran until 1971.