When Johnny Cash performed at Folsom Prison in 1968, he didn’t have a big name on the mainstream music scene. Despite enjoying success on the country charts, he had yet to make a record that cracked the top 20 on the Billboard Hot 100.
In fact, at the time Cash and his band went to Folsom in January ’68, he was battling an amphetamine addiction and struggling to record anything at all. His most recent success was the single “Jackson,” a duet he recorded with future wife June Carter the year before.
Fluke Holland, Cash’s longtime drummer, went to Folsom with zero expectations. “I told everybody it won’t sell enough to pay for the [cost] of the recording,” he told NPR in 2018. But Holland was happy to be wrong: The Folsom performances began Cash’s march to superstardom.
According to Holland and bassist Marshall Grant, it began simply as a way to get Cash to focus on recording songs — any songs. And Cash agreed because he genuinely enjoyed performing for prisoners.
‘We couldn’t get him into the studio,’ Cash’s bass player recalled.
Grant, Cash’s bass player and tour manager, worked and recorded with the “Man in Black” from 1954-80. In a 2018 oral history of the Folsom shows published by Rolling Stone, Grant (who died in 2011) revealed a big reason why the band ended up playing at the Northern California prison.
“This was a way to get something out of him to release, because we couldn’t get him in the studio,” Grant said. “And when we got him in the studio, he’d come completely unprepared.” Marshall said it came up in conversation, and Cash agreed.
Marshall and Holland knew Cash might agree to Folsom because they’d played at prisons before. (Cash had pushed to record at a prison in the past.) “We’re doing a show there to entertain the prisoners because they can’t get out to be entertained,” Holland told Rolling Stone, likening it to “a nice gesture” because he thought the record would flop.
Grant said Cash felt at home in the setting, stark as it was. “John had a real feeling for the down and out, for the prisoners,” he said. “Even though he acquired a lot of things in life, he still felt for these people … He was so real with it. And that’s what brought him to prisons.”
The signature ‘Hello, I’m Johnny Cash’ was set up for maximum effect.
On a makeshift prison stage in front of Folsom’s death row, there wasn’t much room for theater. So the organizers had to think of a way to get the crowd’s full impact on record. Hugh Cherry, a Los Angeles DJ who emceed the performances, helped with one great idea.
According to Marshall, Cherry told the inmates in the audience to ignore Cash when he walked out. (He was about to climb on stage and walk to his spot at the center.) “Don’t clap, don’t stand up, just act like he’s not there,” Cherry told them.
Cherry told the inmates to wait until his signature “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash” before making any noise. They did as he said, and it’s an electric moment preserved on record for the ages. And Cash then opened with “Folsom Prison Blues.”
This live version — 13 years after Cash recorded the original — became a No. 1 country hit and cracked the Billboard top 40. As for Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison, that became his biggest record to that point (No. 13 on the Billboard charts).
At San Quentin, recorded at the eponymous prison a year later, would become Cash’s first Billboard No. 1 album.
Also see: The Album John Lennon Described as ‘the Worst Time of My Life’
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