When Johnny Cash sang one of the most famous lyrics in American history –“I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die” – at Folsom State Prison nearly 50 years ago, both the singer and the penitentiary became etched in popular culture.
Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues” song, first released in 1956, anchored a live album recorded in front of hundreds of inmates in the cafeteria on Jan. 13, 1968. It went triple platinum, rose to No. 1 on both the pop and country western charts and revitalized Cash’s career.
And it put Folsom Prison on the world map.
Every year more than 10,000 people visit the prison museum, where the gift shop offerings include Johnny Cash T-shirts and inmate-made license plates that read “J Cash 50 California.’
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Last month, visitors came from as far away as New Zealand, Australia, Germany, Japan and China.
“The first thing they ask is ‘where did Johnny Cash stand?’” said museum curator Jim Brown.
The prison opened its gates to the media Friday for a tour as part of its upcoming celebration of the 50th anniversary of Cash’s live album performance. Brown was the only person on hand for the tour who actually heard Cash make music within the thick stone walls of Folsom. He spent 32 years as a prison guard here and watched Cash perform before more than 2,000 inmates on the prison yard in 1972. It was one of Cash’s four concerts at Folsom between 1966 and 1977.
“He was pretty spectacular,” Brown said, adding that the strong interracial tensions that existed in the 1960s were put aside during the concert.
“All the different groups were sitting there, getting along,” he said.
Folsom Prison, now 138 years old, has changed since Cash came through. Back then, it was one of the first maximum security facilities in the country. It’s been a medium security prison since 1986.
Today there are 2,476 men and 419 women – a significant reduction from the peak overcrowding days of the early 2000s. Art, music and theater programs that were cut over the past 20 years were added back at Folsom and elsewhere in 2014, said Krissi Khokhobashvili, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
Despite his signature song about prison life, Cash never served any time – other than overnight stays in jail. He was busted once with hundreds of tablets of dexadrine and tranquilizers inside his guitar case, but received a suspended sentence because they were prescription drugs rather than illegal narcotics.
His lyrics about sorrow, moral failings and redemption strike a chord with some of people locked up about 20 miles from downtown Sacramento. Outside the prison gates, the city of Folsom has also embraced Cash as a quasi-native son. In October, Folsom opened the Johnny Cash Trail, a 2.5 mile trail that will eventually be lined with artworks commemorating the Man in Black. About 90 percent of the new trail traverses property owned by the prison.
Several Folsom inmates said the Cash song that resonates most with them is “Greystone Chapel,” which was written and passed along to Cash by Folsom inmate Glen Sherley. In it, Sherley writes about the chapel inside the prison, saying, “You wouldn’t think that God had a place here at Folsom, but he saved the souls of many lost men.”
Curtis Weary, an inmate from Los Angeles who is learning to be an electrician, said he draws inspiration from Cash’s rediscovery of his Christian faith the same year he recorded at Folsom. “He found God when he came up to do a concert at Folsom, and that spoke volumes to me. He made something good out of something bad.”
Cash has also inspired Vang Moua of Fresno, who was working on the electrical system of a black Ford Focus last week in the prison’s auto repair shop. “He opened a lot of doors for a lot of people by making people realize people in prison need a second chance. We’re all human,” Moua said.
In the cafeteria where Cash played two sets, Folsom’s music program was in full swing Friday morning. Bass player Gary Calvin, 55, said Cash’s spirit still fills the prison “with an air of hope.”
“He’s an example of what can happen if you realign yourself and do positive things.”
Famous Folsom Prison inmates
Rick James, musician
Suge Knight, record producer
Charles Manson, cult leader, mass murderer
Timothy Leary, 60s psychedelic icon
Danny Trejo, actor
Eldridge Cleaver, Black Panthers leader