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At Folsom prison, Johnny Cash found his cause

Johnny Cash stands on the lawn outside Folsom State Prison, near Sacramento, on Jan. 13, 1968. The music that he would record later this day, on the other side of these walls, led many already inside to think he had done time there as well. He hadn’t, but his affinity for Folsom’s prisoners was unmistakable. (Jim Marshall/Jim Marshall Photography LLC /Reel Art Press)

When Johnny Cash stepped onstage at Folsom State Prison on Jan. 13, 1968, for the concerts that would change his life, he was in rough shape.

His record label had threatened to drop him, his addiction to pills was increasingly out of control, his personal life was in tatters and he had recently contemplated suicide.

The success of the shows, and the best-selling record they spawned, would spark one of the most successful runs of his career. Cash entered the gates of Folsom a fading and troubled country singer — and came out a mainstream superstar who would use his newfound celebrity to advance the cause of prison reform for more than a decade.

Then everything fell apart, in spectacular fashion.

Playing to the audience

Cash first played Folsom, a maximum-security facility outside Sacramento, in November 1966 — at the urging of the Rev. Floyd Gressett, who preached at a church in Ventura that Cash sometimes attended, and also did outreach at the prison.

Cash returned in 1968 for the live tapings of two shows, one in the morning, one in the afternoon, after battling his skeptical label, Columbia Records, which had been reluctant to fund the recordings. Cash, his girlfriend, June Carter, his band and his entourage all settled in at the nearby El Rancho motel. Gov. Ronald Reagan (R), in town for a fundraiser, came by to chat. Gressett played Cash a tape of “Greystone Chapel,” an uplifting ballad about finding God in the chapel at Folsom. It was written by Glen Sherley, a career criminal locked up there on an armed robbery charge. Cash, moved by the song, wrote the lyrics down in his notebook. Among them: “Inside the walls of prison my body may be/But the Lord has set my soul free.” He stayed up late into the night rehearsing, vowing to play the song the next day.

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At Folsom the next morning, things were unusually fraught. A guard had recently been taken hostage, and the inmates were warned not to stand up during the show. “There were guards walking around with guns on ramps above the audience,” said Robert Hilburn, author of “Johnny Cash: The Life,” who attended while working as a freelance reporter for the Los Angeles Times. “It was tense.”

A stage had been set up in the cafeteria, behind death row. As Cash stood at the side of it, sizing up the audience, Hilburn watched Cash. He looked calm. “He really felt that he had made the right decision, that he had something that audience wanted,” Hilburn said. “He didn’t just do a greatest-hits show that day; he designed every song for that audience and their emotional needs.”

Many in the audience wrongly assumed that Cash had done hard time himself, perhaps taking literally the famous couplet in “Folsom Prison Blues,” his 1955 hit: “But I shot a man in Reno/Just to watch him die.” Cash had done overnight stints in jail, mostly to dry out, and had once been arrested after picking flowers on a stranger’s lawn, but that was the extent of it. Prisoners “related to him as being one of them more than anything else,” said W.S. Holland, Cash’s longtime drummer, who was at Folsom that day.

Cash had never been incarcerated at Folsom — he wrote “Folsom Prison Blues” after watching the 1951 crime drama “Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison” — but he saw himself in the inmates, too. “He realized how it could have been if the stories was true,” Holland said. “He could’ve been out there, looking at somebody doing a show.”

Cash took the stage wearing a black suit with a white dress shirt and his usual grave expression. “Once the music started, you could see people were eating out of his hand,” Hilburn said.

The first Folsom show was electric. The second, with Cash and his band half-exhausted, was more subdued, mostly recorded in case something happened to the first tape.

The crowd was adoring but constrained, said Michael Streissguth, author of “Johnny Cash: The Biography.” The inmates had been warned not to stand, although they sometimes did anyway, and Cash shook hands with some in the front row. Many in the crowd feared that cheering at the wrong moment might anger the guards; according to Streissguth, the cheers that greeted “I shot a man in Reno” were amplified on the recording in post-production.

From country to pop

When “At Folsom Prison” was released in May, it was a hit, and it surprised everyone except Cash, who had long believed that the show held the key to his future.

Every note of the album resonated, from the famed opening salvo — “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash” — to the closing “Greystone Chapel,” with its introductory praise for a stunned Sherley, who was in the front row. The album sold more than 3 million copies and prompted a sequel of sorts, “At San Quentin,” which went to No. 1 on Billboard’s pop and country charts the next year.

“At Folsom Prison” made Cash an icon for everybody: for country fans, whose affections had wandered; and for rock fans, folk fans and members of the counterculture, who found him plain-spoken and trustworthy during a tumultuous year.

To Bestor Cram, director of the 2008 documentary “Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison,” Cash was perfectly matched to the chaos of 1968.

“He was desperate to change his own relationship to his audience,” Cram said, “to find himself amongst all the demons he was fighting on a very personal level, which also kind of represented the stress that the nation was enduring.”

After the Folsom shows, Cash continued to perform at prisons and became increasingly outspoken about the need for reform. He was particularly troubled by the idea that young, first-time offenders were thrown in with hardened criminals.

“He thought the prison system was broken, because it wasn’t fixing anybody,” said Mark Stielper, a friend of Cash’s and the family’s designated historian. “The population was mixed, kids and killers. This was his thing; he was really bothered by that.”

Prison reform was an especially hard sell in the South, where a large portion of Cash’s fan base lived — and where many prisons hadn’t yet desegregated — but it wasn’t a popular cause anywhere in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Streissguth said.

Cash “made mainstream society aware of the need for prison reform,” he said. “There was nobody at his level of prominence who was doing the same thing.”

In July 1972, at the invitation of Sen. William E. Brock III (R-Tenn.), Cash testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee’s subcommittee on national penitentiaries. Cash spoke about the need to treat newly released prisoners as human beings and to keep youthful offenders out of prison, or at least away from older prisoners, citing the case of an imprisoned 15-year-old car thief in Arkansas who had died after being sexually assaulted by inmates.

Cash met with President Richard M. Nixon in the Oval Office to discuss prison reform during the same visit. Partly motivated by a rededication to his Christian faith, Cash talked up the issue at concerts and on his popular TV variety program, “The Johnny Cash Show.” He also worked quietly behind the scenes. He regularly corresponded with prisoners and, according to Stielper, would visit the jail near his home in Sumner County, Tenn., to play cards with the inmates.

Cash also advocated for the release of Sherley, whom he had met after the Folsom shows; they had maintained a correspondence afterward. In 1971, Cash persuaded a reluctant Reagan to free Sherley, who had been serving a potential life sentence. He picked Sherley up at the airport in Nashville, took him on the road, got him a job as a songwriter at his publishing company, included him in his congressional testimony and brought him on “The Mike Douglas Show.”

Sherley released an album, “Live at Vacaville, California,” which sold modestly. Cash was the best man at Sherley’s wedding, and the men would go shrimp boating together. To Cash, Sherley was a songwriter of great promise and a walking example of the possibilities of prison reform. Sherley idolized Cash and struggled to live up to the superstar’s very public expectations.

“John had a huge message of redemption, and I think he wanted him to be an example of that,” Sherley’s son, Keith Sherley, said. “I don’t know that my dad believed in himself the way that Johnny Cash believed in him.”

Glen Sherley had been in prison for large swaths of his life; aside from Cash, he had nothing to give him structure outside an institution. He quickly unraveled.

“My dad wrecked seven cars in his first year because he didn’t know how to drive,” Keith Sherley said. “All Cadillacs.”

His behavior became erratic. Sherley, who had essentially written his way out of prison, now struggled to write decent songs. He would show up late for concerts or not at all. He clashed with bassist Marshall Grant, who claimed that Sherley threatened his life. It was Grant who was eventually tasked with firing him.

Cash and Sherley kept in touch over the next few years as the former Folsom inmate sank deeper into substance abuse back in California. In May 1978, Sherley shot himself in the head and died at 42. Cash paid for his funeral.

An anti-crime attitude

By that time, Cash had already become disillusioned with prison-reform work. The public’s attitude toward prisoners was hardening.

“In the late ’70s and early ’80s, we became a lock-em-up-and-throw-away-the-key nation,” filmmaker Cram said. “The support was just not there. I think he just pulled away.”

Prison audiences were also changing. Cash could no longer see himself in them, and vice versa. He had become the establishment.

“Ten years out from Folsom, he’s become kind of the ambassador for American values and patriotism,” said Colin Woodward, a historian and editor of the (Robert E.) Lee Family Digital Archive, who is working on a book about Cash. “It’s still the same Johnny Cash, but you have a different generation of prisoners at this point, who might be like, ‘This guy’s a has-been.’ ”

In 1980, Cash said, he had an unnerving experience at a prison concert. Cash historians don’t agree on the location. He and June Carter Cash, by then his wife of more than a decade, encountered a group of hostile inmates while walking down a hallway. Cash told Stielper that the men spat at him and banged on the bars of their cells with metal cups. They called him a phony and threatened to rape his wife. In a conversation between the men 20 years later, Stielper says the singer told him: “They were rough. They were so threatening to June, calling out and banging on the bars and just cursing.”

The incident first terrified and then infuriated Cash, who lost his stomach for prison-reform work after that. He turned his attention to less controversial causes, such as raising money for children with autism.

The bulk of Cash’s efforts in prisons had coincided with some of his biggest years as a celebrity, but by the early 1980s he was in a downturn. A new generation of country artists replaced him on the charts, and he returned to rehab when his addiction to painkillers flared up again, thanks to a painful run-in with an ostrich on his farm.

Cash, who died in 2003, remained frustrated by his inability to gain traction in his prison-reform work.

Since the Folsom shows, the number of Americans incarcerated has risen more than 500 percent, in large part because of stricter sentencing laws, according to the Sentencing Project. Thousands of young offenders are still sentenced to time in adult facilities, although those numbers are improving.

Nearly 15 years after Cash’s death, increased attention has been focused on criminal justice reform, in part because of White House senior adviser Jared Kushner, whose father did time in federal prison. Two bills — one backed by President Trump — face uncertain fates in Congress.

Big movements travel slowly, and Cash will be remembered for his efforts on behalf of those whom few others were fighting for, Cram said.

“Even today, when we listen to Johnny Cash, we know of him as a friend of the prisoner,” he said. “He continues to move the needle as we question how our society continues to lock people up.”

More information about “Johnny Cash at Folsom and San Quentin” can be found here.

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