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Johnny Cash’s ‘At Folsom Prison’ at 50: An Oral History

Eyewitnesses to the Man in Black’s legendary 1968 concerts at the California prison recall Cash’s shining moment

Johnny Cash

Johnny Cash's 1968 visit to Folsom Prison yielded one of country music's most celebrated live albums.

Verite Production/Wjrz Radio/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

Five decades after Johnny Cash’s At Folsom Prison album was recorded, it remains as mythical as ever. The concert and its star bore into the international imagination and for various reasons never left it. Dressed in his trademark black on January 13th, 1968, he paradoxically celebrated prison and outlaw life while creating a damning portrait of the prison experience that pricked the era’s concern for society’s outcasts. It was also the first live recording of a prison performance, and it crystalized Cash’s dark image. And then it thrust into the public spotlight chiseled inmate Glen Sherley, who embodied Cash’s belief that compassion for prisoners could lead to redemption for us all.

The stories around the Folsom album – released 50 years ago this May – spiraled up like a dust devil, taking with it fevered speculation about Cash’s run-ins with the law and other half-truths and shady legends. Hollywood’s 2005 Walk the Line biopic portrayed the concert as something it was not, although it did get one thing right: On a very basic level, Folsom marked a personal and professional renaissance for Cash.

To bring it all down to earth, Rolling Stone has combined never-before-published interviews with three witnesses to the Folsom Prison shows: Marshall Grant, an original member of Cash’s Tennessee Two who played bass and held together his boss’s manic touring troupe from 1954 to 1980; drummer W.S. “Fluke” Holland, formerly with rockabilly legend Carl Perkins, who joined Cash in 1960 and remained with him until Cash’s last tour in the 1990s; and Jim Marshall, the king of rock & roll photographers who famously shot virtually every pop music star during his lifetime but counted himself most lucky to be with his camera at Folsom Prison. Marshall and Grant died in 2010 and 2011, respectively, while Holland lives today in Jackson, Tennessee, and fronts a band that honors the country music legend’s memory.

The three men re-trace Cash’s steps into California’s Folsom Prison on a chilly, gray day and resurrect his and June Carter’s unbridled performances for the men who seemed to count Cash as one of their own. Grant and Holland harken back to the power of Cash’s performance of Glen Sherley’s song “Greystone Chapel” and then its tragic aftermath. And who knew the Man in Black’s entourage carried through the prison gates both a concealed weapon and pellets of hash until Grant and Marshall revealed it for the first time in these interviews?

More surprising, perhaps, is that the Folsom concerts (Cash did two that day) was more than an act of compassion for the inmates, but also a ploy to coax from Cash another album when his drug use had stymied his record production. What further secrets does the Folsom story hold? The years to come may tell.

THE ROAD TO FOLSOM

Marshall Grant: This was a way to get something out of him to release, because we couldn’t get him in the studio. And when we got him in the studio, he’d come completely unprepared. He came in and would start writing songs. You can’t do that because every part of our career proves, especially with us and with him, you had to get the songs, work it up, have it ready to go. Well, we couldn’t get him to do that. So it came up through conversation, “Let’s do an album at Folsom Prison.”

Fluke Holland: I mean we’re going to Folsom, and we’re doing a show there to entertain the prisoners because they can’t get out to be entertained. It was like we just were doing a nice gesture. And I remember saying, as far as making money, this show, if you’re going to tape it and sell it, it won’t sell enough to pay for tape. I remember saying that two or three times. In fact, I remember saying it to Bob Johnston, who produced the thing. And it turned out to be one of the biggest things at that time that Johnny Cash ever did.

Jim Marshall: I don’t think any of us knew how important it would be. I photographed the last Beatles concert in 1966. It was 10,000 seats short of sold out because no one knew it would be the last concert the Beatles ever did. But I was fortunate to be at both those places. I think Folsom gained in importance over the years because of the rawness of it and the energy. And it’s amazing the energy on that record. But I didn’t know at the time how important it would be.

MG: John had a real feeling for the down and out, for the prisoners. For anybody like that. He came from very humble beginnings in Arkansas. So even though he acquired a lot of things in life, he still felt for these people and he made it very obvious, too. He was so real with it. And that’s what brought him to prisons. And a lot of them turned their lives around because of our willingness to go entertain them that told them that we cared.

JM: I think John believed he was just making the public more aware of the conditions in the prisons. As a spokesman when he did the show, I don’t think he saw himself as that. I think he saw himself as an entertainer who could make a difference in their lives even for an hour.

MG: When we got to Folsom, it was so quiet and so desolate and you could only see a few prisoners around. Jim Marshall took pictures of John and June on the bus and of them getting off of the bus and we were all in there and it was a rolling jail cell. And so even from the time we left the little motel, which was two or three miles away, it was a very somber atmosphere for everybody. It was hard to explain. There was just no joy here.

The atmosphere in there is unlike any place you’ve ever been in your entire life. Whatever you saw outside is exactly the opposite of what you see in here. And everybody is controlled. Everybody is watched, including us. We were prisoners in these prisons. So that sort of made it uncomfortable. It didn’t mean that the prison guards weren’t nice about it, but they had rules and regulations that we had to abide by, and we weren’t going to break those rules.

JM: We just got off the bus. And these granite walls are like 18 feet high, and we

got off the bus inside the second set of giant gates, and they clanked shut and John goes, “Jim, that sound has a feeling of permanence about it.” You know, I’m thinking, “Oh, goddamn.” Because only a year before, I was arrested for shooting somebody. I could have been in there. In fact, I was on probation when we went to Folsom.

MG: I carried this gun into Folsom, which was a real gun that we used as part of a gag on stage. You pulled the trigger and it would smoke. It was loud, and it was so funny that people just absolutely loved it on the show. Well, I carried it in my bass case. I didn’t think anything about it. But when I went to get my bass out and I saw the gun in the bass case, I said, “Oh my God, I’m in Folsom Prison with a gun! I probably will spend the rest of my life here.” So I very quietly went over to a security guard who was stationed on the stage and I explained to him exactly what it was all about, and I said, “I don’t want no problems.” He said, “Well, don’t worry about it. I will get a couple of security guards to go with me and we’ll take it and explain it to the warden and we’ll lock it up until you get ready to go.”

JM: I had a couple of little balls of hash in my camera bag that I’d forgot about, and they didn’t find it, obviously. But can you imagine going into a prison with some drugs on you? God! I had Levi’s jeans on, and they said, “You can’t come in with Levi’s because [you’ll blend in with] the prisoners in their blue jeans.” They had to get a pair of khakis for me.

THE SHOW

FH:
I remember so well, that was the days when we didn’t have monitors on the stage and we couldn’t hear what was going on. All they had was this house system. And when got through with the song and went to the next song that John would start to do, we had no idea what it was going to be. So he’d start singing the song, and we couldn’t hear. We’d just start playing something. We didn’t know if we was doing the right thing or whatever, but everything worked out really good.

MG: Carl Perkins was on the show, the Statler Brothers was on it and so was June – not the Carter Family because we felt it wasn’t the place to take the entire family. But John wanted June, and we felt that we could look out after her ourselves, along with the prison guards. One female is easy to look out after where four or five women could have been a problem, and that’s the reason the Carters weren’t on it.

So [emcee and L.A. disc jockey] Hugh Cherry goes out on the stage and he introduces Carl, he introduces the Statlers, and then he goes out and he explains to the audience what he wants them to do. He said, “Johnny Cash is getting ready to come out and when he come out don’t say nothing. Don’t clap, don’t stand up, just act like he’s not there. He will come up to the microphone and he will say, ‘Hello, I’m Johnny Cash.’ And I want you to blow the roof off of this building.” He said, “Whatever noise you ever made, let it be multiplied tenfold right here because you’re going to be recorded.” That was a huge idea. It wasn’t mine. It wasn’t John’s. Damn sure it wasn’t Bob Johnston’s. But did it ever work! That crowd had a lot to do with the success of that album.

When [guitarist] Luther Perkins kicked off “Folsom Prison Blues” …. of course, they’d heard “Folsom” before and they knew Luther was going to kick it off. But when he started doing it loud and clear everybody turns toward Luther. We all did on the stage and so did they, and they thought that he was the greatest thing that ever picked up a guitar, which in my opinion, he was. But he knocked those people for a loop and that just added flame to the fire from the introduction. Then after the first guitar break, Luther did two breaks on it, John had them in the palm of his hand. He could do no wrong.

JM: If Johnny would have said, “Come on, let’s crash out of here right now,” they would have done it. They’d have followed him. He had that presence.

MG: When June come out they gave her a rousing round of applause. I was worried about what they might holler up, but nobody said anything. It just went real well. They did “Jackson,” and they did another song or two and the prisoners just absolutely loved it. She was a great asset on that show. At this period in John’s life he wanted her in his presence at all times. It didn’t make no difference. But I think he just wanted to make sure that she was along because he felt that with her along that he was going to handle his life all right.

JM: June was from the Carter family, the founders of modern country music, so she brought the hardcore country fans, the traditionalists, to John. I’m maybe just throwing my own feeling in, but a lot of people accepted John because he was with June, the die-hard country fans in the audience.

GLEN SHERLEY AND “GREYSTONE CHAPEL”

MG:
Floyd Gressett [a minister friend of Cash’s] served inmates at Folsom Prison. And he got acquainted with a prisoner called Glen Sherley, and Glen had written some songs. And he knew that Floyd knew John. This was before the show was ever scheduled, or we were in the process of scheduling it. And he asked Rev. Gressett if he could get a song to John, because he didn’t have no idea in the world how to do it. So he sent John the song before we went over there. And John and us learned “Greystone Chapel.” Luther only played rhythm because Carl played the whole thing.

FH: “Greystone Chapel” was so powerful and it said so much of the way prison life was that John knew it was something prisoners would like. That is why I always call Johnny Cash a borderline genius. He was so smart. It was almost like he could look at the audience and tell what they would like to hear.

He just started singing it and we just started playing it. It had a good beat behind it. It just seemed like he knew what they wanted to hear and he didn’t really care if security didn’t want them to hear that.

MG: It was planned to tell Glen nothing about it, but also they sat him on the front row. So we kicked it off and John told the prisoners about this man writing this song and how he got to him through Floyd Gressett. And he said, “We’re going to do it, we’re going to record it.” And Glen just melted in his seat. We started “Greystone Chapel,” and John did a phenomenal job on it. He just felt it from his toes on up. And so after that, John proceeded to get him out of prison.

After John got him out of prison, he decided that he wanted to take him on the road with us because there was a lot of publicity out about him, what John did, and he thought it would give him a boost, a recording career or something. He sang fairly good, but he was so nervous the whole time he was with us that he couldn’t sing a word at all. He would get up there onstage and he would just shake all over. But Glen got a little hard to handle. You couldn’t get him out of bed. He went to the bar. He would fight. He loved to fight. He’d fight anybody. And I was scared of him.

FH: Glen Sherley is the only person that I’ve ever been around in my life that I had been scared of. There was something about Glen Sherley that was different to me. He was, we’ll say, a big star in prison, a big superstar. He’d been there most of his life and he knew all the ropes and he knew how to get whatever he wanted and he came out in this world of entertainment which was rough. Only the strong can survive in the entertainment world. And Glen couldn’t cope with the outside world.


MG: So I was talking to him, “Glen, when you’re here you’ve got to be prompt. You keep missing airplanes. You’ve got to get on the plane. You’ve got to follow me. I’ll hand you an itinerary of everything and all you have to do is read it and do it. It’s just that simple.” He was smoking a cigarette and sort of sitting there, and he said, “I love you like a brother. But you know what I would really like to do to you?” And I said, “Well no, Glen, I don’t.” He said, “What I would really like to do is get a butcher knife and I would like to start cutting you all to hell. I’d like to drain every drop of blood in your body out on that floor.”

So I go to John and June, and I was like, “John, it’s over. It’s just over. We can’t have him up here because he’s made it very, very clear what he wants to do to me. If he made it clear to me, he’ll do it to you, he’ll do it to everybody on this band, he’ll rape one of the girls.” And John said, “I understand what you’re saying, Marshall, I understand very clearly what you’re saying.” And he said, “Just let me handle it.” So Glen moved back to California and went to work at a farm. I reckon it was more than he could stand because one day he just pulled a gun out of his pocket and put it to his temple and put a bullet through his head.

FH: I don’t think John ever blamed his self at all for Glen’s death. And I don’t think he should have. I don’t know why he would even think about blaming his self for what happened. I think he always thought he did Glen a big favor. Probably if Glen had never come out of prison he’d probably been alive right now, or for sure lived many, many years longer than he did. Because it was easier for him in there.

MG: I think John felt – he didn’t say this – but I think he felt that he gave Glen a shot at life, and he did.

THE ALBUM

FH:
After that album was released and become a hit, it quadrupled the amount of people that knew about Johnny Cash. And then came the San Quentin album. I think that’s the two things that skyrocketed him to stardom. Then the thing that put the icing on the cake, as we call it, in the late Sixties and early Seventies, was when we did the weekly ABC network show [The Johnny Cash Show], and of course that just finished it up. I don’t know if that could have happened, though, if the prison shows hadn’t happened before that. That set Johnny Cash up.

JM: I think Folsom has 10 times the energy of San Quentin. San Quentin‘s great, but for me, Folsom is probably one of the great records ever made. The rawness of Folsom I think is what makes it. That’s it. Real simple. San Quentin was recorded on two eight-tracks, they had a film crew, you know, it was a big production. Folsom, they put a microphone up there. That was it. It was pretty simple. But I think the simplicity caught the moment. There were no frills. It was basic. And I think that struck a chord with people. And his words were honest. There was no complex poetry. It was just right down to it.

Sgt. Pepper’s, Are You Experienced?, Pet Sounds, Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde, I think that Folsom is just as important as those records. It was only because of the intensity of John’s performance there. It was the realness, the rawness, the honesty at Folsom that made that record important.

MG: We’d done some great records, but they were so few and far between by the time we got to Folsom. A record would come out and it was popular for a little while, but you could feel it go back down. It was like a roller coaster. But when this album came out, it just turned everything in our lives around. Our careers were turned around. John was becoming what he deserved.

He grew so popular with the prison shows that he felt that he would be a good spokesman for the prison population, and he was. And he spoke out on a lot of occasions on behalf of the prisoners, because it’s just the way he felt about these down and out people. You can’t find many people more down and out than a prisoner.

JM: I think that John really believed that he was making things better for the prisoners by going and doing concerts for them. And he was making the cause of the prisoners more available to the public, because he was such a high-profile person. And I think that he really believed that he was doing a good thing. He had that aura of being one of them. Whether it was conceived or thought about or it just happened over the course of years, it happened. I don’t think he thought about it that much. But I really believe that he believed he was doing a good thing performing in prisons. And it turned out Folsom was one of the biggest-selling country records of all time.

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