Recorded in 1968, the album “At Folsom Prison” put Johnny Cash on the map as an international country music star and became the reference point by which many people have come to know Folsom.
Folsom leaders plan to celebrate the connections between Cash and the city Saturday as they unveil the first section of the Johnny Cash Trail and Overpass. The $3.8 million overpass at Folsom Lake Crossing Road and East Natoma Street is a pedestrian and bike bridge designed to echo the prison’s east gate guard towers. When the 2.5-mile trail is complete, it will traverse prison property and link existing trails near Folsom Lake and City Hall.
The city is planning a $3 million fundraising drive to pay for remaining critical elements – infrastructure for a 2-acre park next to the bridge and a series of art installations along the trail, including a 40-foot steel statue of the Man in Black. While the city has used federal and state funds for the trail and bridge, officials say donations are a more appropriate source of money for the art.
Saturday’s ceremony next to the bridge will run from 9 a.m. to noon with a ribbon-cutting at 10 a.m. Cash’s Grammy-winning daughter, Rosanne Cash, is expected to attend the ceremony after performing the night before at the Harris Center for the Arts in Folsom.
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The Folsom prison performance marked a turning point in Johnny Cash’s career, said former Los Angeles Times music critic Robert Hilburn, author of “Johnny Cash: The Life,” which The Washington Post has called the definitive Cash biography.
“It was the concert that made him a superstar,” Hilburn said.
Hilburn covered the performance as a freelancer, two years before joining the newspaper where he would write about music for 35 years. He said only one other reporter showed up, from the Ventura area, because Columbia Records didn’t promote it. Executives were worried Cash would show up wasted, unable to play, Hilburn said.
“Folsom Prison Blues” became a signature Cash song, Hilburn said, with the haunting line:
But I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die.
When I hear that whistle blowing, I hang my head and cry.
He recorded the song 13 years before the Folsom concert, inspired by the movie “Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison.” His intent was to play his first prison concert at San Quentin, but the warden was out when his manager called, so he ended up at Folsom first, Hilburn said.
As someone who suffered through drug addiction, time in jail, the loss of a young brother and other hardships, Cash identified with underdogs such as prison inmates, Hilburn said. While he wrote catchy songs, he also sought to transmit his pain into music with a message, similar to other popular but serious artists such as U2 and Bob Dylan, he said.
The atmosphere at the prison was tense because the inmates were ordered to stay in their seats throughout the concert, the result of a guard being kidnapped two weeks earlier, he said. They were riveted by Cash’s performance.
Growing up in Arkansas, Cash saw how music could uplift people in the church and the cotton fields, Hilburn said. He brought that sense of purpose with him to Folsom prison.
“At Folsom Prison” became Cash’s highest charting record to date, Hilburn said, and his follow-up, “Johnny Cash Live at San Quentin,” went to the top of the charts. Bakersfield native Merle Haggard saw the San Quentin show when he was an inmate and credits the show with inspiring his own career as a country music star, Hilburn said.
Cash went on to to host his own TV variety show for three years. As his star rose, more people became aware of Folsom through the album and the song bearing its name.
“People around the world know Folsom because of that very famous song,” said Folsom Mayor Kerri Howell.
Robert Goss, the city’s Parks and Recreation director, said he learned that lesson during a trip to Sweden two years ago. He said he was from Folsom, and some Swedes immediately replied: “Johnny Cash, Folsom prison.”
“Everyone in Folsom has a story like that,” he said.
The idea for the trail’s theme came from Senior Planner Jim Konopka, who thought it was a natural fit when he was working on plans for a trail around the prison, Goss said.
“He was good for the city, and the city was good for him,” Goss said of Cash.
City leaders have spent a lot of time thinking about how to best memorialize Cash. They advertised nationally for public art proposals for the Cash Trail. A committee whittled proposals from 32 teams down to two, which were ultimately approved by the City Council.
Adan Romo of Sacramento was picked to do seven works of art, including a sculpture of Cash, a large replica of a guitar pick that will include a trail map and a “Ring of Fire” display made up of swirling red guitar picks.
RRM Design Group of San Luis Obispo was picked to design the 2-acre park, which will include a replica of a guitar built into the ground and stretching into the street, and the 40-foot Cash statue.