While it’s been over half a century since Johnny Cash recorded his At Folsom Prison album, its legacy and country music magic remain to this day. The live recording would become Cash’s signature celebration of outlaw life in which he spent it with some of his most loyal fans: inmates.
Johnny Cash’s Prison Performance
On January 13, 1968, dressed in all black, Cash recorded an entire album at a state prison, which no one had attempted before. Subsequently, that record would produce more than just music that has stood the test of time. It painted an accurate representation of what Cash was and wrote songs about: being an outsider.
After releasing “Folsom Prison Blues” in 1955, Cash was vocal about his interest in recording a prison performance. He would have to wait until 1967, when Columbia Records’ changes put Bob Johnston in charge of producing Cash’s material. Prior to the performance, Cash had controlled his drug abuse problems and turned his career around after years of lacking commercial success.
Prior to the performance, they rehearsed for two days. On the second day, California governor, Ronald Reagan, had an in-person meeting with Cash and his band to wish them luck.
There were two performances scheduled to take place at Folsom Prison. The second performance acted as a precautionary measure in case the first recorded performance didn’t go as planned.
After Carl Perkins and the Statler Brothers performed, Cash took the stage. The inmates were silent until they heard the “Man in Black” introduce himself.
“Hello. I’m Johnny Cash.”
Backed by June Carter, Carl Perkins, and the Tennessee Three, Cash performed two shows at Folsom State Prison in California. As a result, fans would get fifteen new tracks from the first show and two tracks from the second.
The Lasting Impact of At Folsom Prison
Cash opened both shows with his hit, “Folsom Prison Blues.” Despite their excitement, the inmates remained quiet throughout the song’s performance. They were careful not to applaud or cheer at any lyrics about the prison itself to avoid any adverse reaction from the guards.
In post-production, Cash added in the cheers heard on the album following the line “I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die.”
All but two songs on the album, At Folsom Prison, came from the first performance.
Four months after releasing the album, the live version of “Folsom Prison Blues” became a “Top 40” hit. It also hit the “Billboard Top 100” chart. Despite laying down the record in an unusual setting, it received overwhelmingly positive reviews. It was certified triple platinum in 2003 for sales exceeding three million.
While commercial success was nothing new for Cash, the album represented so much more than selling records. Its production eternalized Cash as an advocate for outlaws and outcasts and left behind a message that everyone is deserving of redemption no matter their past.
As a result, the album’s success transformed Folsom Prison into one of the world’s most famous and well-known prisons. For the rest of history, the City of Folsom became known for its connection with Cash.
When asked about the impact of the performance, Cash responded with his signature brutal honesty and eloquence.
“I think prison songs are popular because most of us are living in one kind of little prison or another, and whether we know it or not the words of a song about someone who is actually in a prison speak for a lot of us who might appear not to be, but really are.”