Johnny Cash in 1968. His album At Folsom
Prison
, recorded that year in a California
penitentiary, rebooted his career and became a critical
favorite. Hulton Archive/Getty Images
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Hulton
Archive/Getty Images

Johnny Cash in 1968. His album At Folsom Prison,
recorded that year in a California penitentiary, rebooted
his career and became a critical favorite.

Hulton
Archive/Getty Images

“Hello, I’m Johnny
Cash
.” Those words were uttered to wild applause in the
cafeteria of Folsom Prison, a maximum security facility
northeast of Sacramento, Calif. on Jan. 13, 1968.

Johnny Cash played a lot of prison concerts during his career,
though he never did hard time himself. His daughter Tara Cash
Schwoebel says her father’s interest in prisons went back to
his days serving in the U.S. Air Force in Germany in the early
1950s. That’s when he saw the noir crime drama Inside the
Walls of Folsom Prison
.

“I think that’s where all of this kind of grew from,” Schwoebel
says. “He was just moved by the film.”

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Cash wrote the song “Folsom Prison Blues” in 1955; it was his
first big hit. But by 1968, he hadn’t had a hit in several
years. He’d become notorious for missing concert dates, and
because of an addiction to prescription pills, he was usually
out of it when he did show up.

When he arranged the date at Folsom, Cash at least knew he’d
have a captive audience. “One thing he liked about playing
prisons: If he did something the audience didn’t like, they
couldn’t leave,” W.S. “Fluke” Holland, Cash’s drummer at the
time, says. Holland didn’t expect much would come of the two
sessions the band played that day.

“I told everybody it won’t sell enough to pay for the expense
of going out with the recording equipment,” Holland recalls.
“That shows how wrong I was.”

When the album At Folsom Prison was released the
following May, it topped the Billboard country charts
and Cash’s career took off again. He recorded another
best-selling album from San Quentin Prison in 1969. Schwoebel
says her father continued to perform in prisons around the
country and use his celebrity to speak out on behalf of
prisoners.

The album At Folsom Prison was released in May
1968. Sony
Music/Legacy Recordings
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Sony
Music/Legacy Recordings

“I think it really spoke to his rebellious side,” Schwoebel
explains. “He really had a passion for standing up for these
people who were locked up, you know, and treated so poorly.”

In 1972, Cash testified at a U.S. Senate subcommittee on prison
reform. Among other proposals, he called for keeping minors out
of jail and focusing on rehabilitating inmates.

“Between the attention that he created through his performances
and being seated at the Senate, he created a lot more
awareness,” Schwoebel says.

Johnny Cash never saw the transformation he had hoped to see.
He eventually refocused his energies on other causes, like
helping the families of police officers who had been killed in
the line of duty. In the 50 years since At Folsom
Prison
was recorded, the percentage of Californians in
state prisons has nearly doubled.

Today, in the cafeteria at Folsom Prison, inmate Andrew Clayton
plays guitar as part of a California prison program that
provides training in music, painting and other creative
pursuits: He’s the lead guitarist with Blind Justice, one of
the penitentiary’s in-house bands. Country music isn’t his
thing, but he still finds Cash’s connection with Folsom
inspiring.

“Just the fact that he played here, and I’m playing here,”
Clayton says, “I feel like I’m part of something special.”

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