Crime History: Johnny Cash records performance inside Folsom State Prison

Johnny Cash's performance at Folsom Prison in California helped revive his career.

Johnny Cash’s performance at Folsom Prison in California helped revive his career.

On  this day, Jan. 13, in 1968, Johnny Cash performed live at Folsom Prison in California.

Thirteen years earlier, Cash had recorded Folsom Prison Blues, a song in which its inmate protagonist recounts his crimes, “I shot a man in Reno/ just to watch him die,” and imagines what he would do if he became free. Cash had been interested in recording a live album at the prison ever since.

By 1968, Cash was battling drug and alcohol addictions and his popularity had dissipated. But he convinced new Columbia Records executives to record the prison performance.

Cash performed two shows in front of 2,000 prison inmates in the prison cafeteria. Joining Cash were his future wife, June Carter, Carl Perkins and the Statler Brothers.

The prisoners refrained from cheering at the Reno line for fear of reprisal, and the whoops reportedly were added in postproduction.

The album, At Folsom Prison with it’s chart-topping live country single “Folsom Prison Blues,” was on the Billboard pop chart for 122 weeks, and helped revitalize Cash’s career and solidified his place as a champion of the downtrodden.

— Scott McCabe

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