Johnny Cash’s concert at Folsom Prison on January 13, 1968, wasn’t his first break, but without the album recorded there, he might never have managed a comeback. After falling out of favor with the country music community because of his brash attitude and drug addictions, Cash decided to connect with fans who understood his troubles: prisoners.
The night before what would be his second concert at Folsom Prison (the first one wasn't recorded), Cash was given a tape recorded by an inmate and songwriter named Glen Sherley. He listened to the tape, and at the concert the following day, Cash addressed Sherley in the crowd, saying, “I hope I do your song justice.”
When Cash began playing “Greystone Chapel,” an excited Sherley " jumped out of his front-row chair with a smile I will never forget,” Glen Beley, a writer for the Virginia Quarterly Review, recalled.
Cash helped Sherley record his own album, “Live at Vacaville,” while still an inmate, and was also able to persuade the governor of California to release him early. (Hear Sherley's recording on Lastfm.com). Cash even brought him on tour, but Sherley slipped back into drug addiction, left the stage and took his own life in 1978.
"In prison I guess he was one of the top dogs in the pecking order, but he found it hard to adjust to the outside world," said Lou Robin, Cash's manager. Cash paid for Sherley’s funeral, but he soon discontinued his prison outreach, turning his focus to helping American Indians.
According to Roseanne, his daughter, Johnny Cash’s life changed dramatically after the success of his Folsom concert and album. "The affirmation helped transform his personal life. It took him away from the heavy drug use and turned him back to religion," biographer Michael Streissguth told the Rocky Mountain News.
Johnny Cash died on Sept. 12, 2003, a few months after his wife June Carter Cash.
Senior Writer and Audience Development Coordinator