Johnny Cash and the Prisoner Community

I am sincere, and my sincerity is my credential.

–Malcolm X

Johnny Cash considered prisoners his best audience, and he performed for them for a long time. In October of 1959 at the annual rodeo at Huntsville prison in Texas, Cash first strummed his guitar for inmates. Cash was only a few years into his music career, but he had had a string of hits. In his repertoire was the up-tempo “Folsom Prison Blues,” a song inspired by a 1950s B-movie that Cash had seen while serving in the Air Force. That day at Huntsville, it began raining hard. The storm knocked out the electricity, but Cash and the Tennessee Two kept playing. The prisoners loved it. They crowded to the edge of the stage, demanding an encore of “Folsom Prison Blues.” Cash obliged. The gig went so well that Cash asked his manager to book another prison show. The next one was at San Quentin a few months later.

Johnny Cash went on to play for prisoners for 21 years. In that time, he recorded much of his best work. Two of those albums—At Folsom Prison and At San Quentin—were taped live in California prisons. Cash always had a rebellious streak. But the fact that he connected so well with prisoners set him apart from other songwriters. In American prisons, the Man in Black found one of his strongest communities. In Cash, prisoners found a true champion.

Johnny Cash fans have enjoyed his prison albums for decades. But what did the prisoners themselves think of him? Cash might have thought prisoners were his best audience, but he stopped playing for them in1980. It’s unclear why he stopped. But what is clear is that Cash had empathy for prisoners and believed society needed to treat convicts humanely if there were to be genuine reform in the justice system. Scholars have examined how Cash connected with inmates nationwide, but fewer have examined why this community eventually disappeared.

Cash’s advocacy for prisoners coincided with the activist tide of the 1960s, when Americans more than ever championed civil rights, women’s liberation, Native American causes, and ending the Vietnam War. Cash wrote songs for Native Americans in a time when no other white celebrities did. He was critical of the Vietnam War. In advocating for the reform of America’s troubled justice system, Cash lifted the spirits of those both in prisons and the outside world.

Throughout his career, Cash played for thousands of inmates, not just at Folsom and San Quentin, but Cummins prison in Arkansas; the U.S. Penitentiary, Leavenworth in Kansas; Tennessee State Prison in Nashville; Osteraker in Sweden; Soledad in northern California; and Angola in southern Louisiana. Merle Haggard was in the audience at Cash’s 1960 San Quentin show and went on to country stardom himself. Another one-time prisoner, Glen Sherley, became a celebrity after Cash discovered him at Folsom, where Cash played Sherley’s song “Greystone Chapel” to a roaring crowd. Haggard and Sherley, though, were just two prisoners that Cash inspired.

Born in 1932, Cash grew up in Dyess in northeastern Arkansas during the Great Depression. At eighteen, he left the cotton fields for the Air Force. After his return, he got married, moved to Memphis, and started a band. From there, Cash saw a rapid rise to stardom at Sun Records. With Cash’s success came philandering, smashed hotel rooms, and a nearly fatal pill addiction. His wildness landed him in jail a few times, but he never did hard time. Even so, he knew that had he been poor or of a different skin color, or both, he might have ended up in prison. Cash never shot a man in Reno just to watch him die, but it seemed like he could have.

Merle Haggard was amazed at Johnny Cash’s 1960 show at San Quentin. Haggard and Cash had a lot in common. They were born five years apart into poverty. The same year Cash’s family had moved to Dyess, Haggard’s had moved to California from Oklahoma. Like Cash, Haggard loved trains and was restless. Unlike Cash, Haggard was a hardened criminal. Arrested for robbery, in February 1958 he was sent to San Quentin. At the New Year’s Day 1960 concert, Haggard remembered Cash’s voice was not in fine form, but “the men responded to Johnny Cash more than they did to the strippers who danced on that New Year’s Day show. Can you believe that?” Haggard was released later that year. In 1970, after recording a string of hits, he performed on The Johnny Cash Show. By then, one could say that Haggard had been rehabilitated.

Cash’s 1960 show at San Quentin was memorable, but his 1968 Folsom concert made history. The live album that came from it relaunched Cash’s career, and at Folsom, Cash connected with prisoners like never before. There, he met Glen Sherley, whose song “Greystone Chapel” turned Sherley into a minor country celebrity once he got out of prison. That happened in 1971. And when he was released, Johnny Cash was there to pick him up.

In April of 1969, a few months after the recording of At San Quentin, Cash played another prison concert, one that was more personal. At Cummins farm, Cash played his one and only prison concert in Arkansas. The show came in the wake of prison scandals that had rocked his home state for the past two years. In contrast to the castle-like Folsom, Cummins was a 16,000 acre working plantation, where inmates grew rice, cotton, and cucumbers by the truckload. Historically, inmates had run the prison themselves. Cummins became a dark and evil world of violence, rape, torture, and corruption.

By April 1969, Arkansas had made some much needed reforms in its prison system. Cash’s visit to Cummins showed how much had changed, but how much work remained to be done. Wade Eaves, the editor of the uncensored prison paper The Pea Picker’s Picayune, warned inmates about misbehaving, lest they miss “the man who gives out the music” and wind up in the “hole.” On stage at the concert, Eaves gave Cash an honorary life sentence. Cash not only played for the white and black prisoners, he talked with them one on one, including the men on death row. Inmates “virtually flipped!” Eaves wrote after the show. Cash became a “bona-fide hero to the Cummins Crew.”

Johnny Cash was not a political man by nature, but he lived in troubled times that demanded people take a stand. He visited the White House in April 1970 to play for Richard Nixon. A few weeks later, Cash traveled to Kansas to play at Leavenworth prison, his first show at a federal penitentiary (not to be confused with nearby Fort Leavenworth, the military prison). “We came because we care,” inmate Albert Nussbaum remembered Cash saying. “We care. We really do,” Cash told the men at Leavenworth. “If there’s ever anything I can do for you all, let me know somehow, and I’ll do it.” One prisoner turned to another and asked him if he thought Cash meant it. The inmate replied that he did.

Dressed in black and standing six-foot-two—even taller in cowboy boots and a pile of hair—Cash was imposing. “Cash is real,” Nussbaum said. “He has a bad cough and smokes too much. So did most of us who had come to see him. He has a look of suffering caused by a hard life and years of one-night stands in forgettable places.” Cash, he concluded, “is a man’s man.” What was more, Nussbaum saw in Cash “an empathy, a sympathy and understanding for prisoners that would be difficult to counterfeit.” As was true of Merle Haggard, Nussbaum proved prisoners could change. When he saw Cash, Nussbaum was seven years into a forty year stretch. Despite the odds against him, he became a writer and was paroled a few years later. With his new freedom, Nussbaum went on to publish novels, write mysteries, and bang out television scripts.

As the 1970s wore on, American politics shifted to the Right, and Cash’s prison shows seemed to have less impact with each passing year. Prison reform, furthermore, was a slow and sometimes bloody process. In 1970, despite significant reforms in the state penitentiary, a federal judge ruled the Arkansas prison system unconstitutional—the only time a judge has made such a ruling. And in 1971, 43 people—33 inmates and ten guards—were killed at Attica prison in New York.

Cash kept playing for inmates, but by the late 1970s, it became obvious he couldn’t save his protégé Glen Sherley from a life of crime. Sherley enjoyed modest success as a country singer after his discovery at Folsom. Eventually, though, he fell back into his old ways, and Cash fired him after Sherley threatened bass player Marshall Grant with violence. Sherley returned to California, where he worked as a cattle feeder, drank heavily, and abused drugs. In May of 1978, while high on drugs, he shot a man. Terrified of going to prison again, he killed himself a few days later. Johnny Cash paid for Sherley’s funeral.

Sherley’s death weighed on Cash, and by the late 1970s, Johnny was having his own personal problems. His albums were not selling well. He had little creative momentum. By 1980, he was hooked again on pills.

That year, Cash played his last prison shows. In February, Cash visited California’s Soledad. As Cash archivist Mary Beth Barber has written, the show was part of the “successful immersive arts and music programs for inmates that was in full force at the time.” The concert, unfortunately, revealed how much had changed in the last ten years.

Johnny Cash usually played to rapt audiences. At Soledad, however, he had difficulty keeping the prisoners’ attention. Cash was annoyed at men playing a basketball game while he tried to perform. Cash noted that his shows were for “everybody.” When he called the basketball game “distracting,” one inmate said, “some people have no class.” At Soledad, Cash found himself reprimanding prisoners like a teacher who had lost control of his students.

Almost 25 years into his career, and with 20 years of playing at America’s roughest prisons to his credit, Cash felt he had to explain himself. “We care for you as human beings,” he told the men at Soledad, adding that he was “not doin’ it for publicity,” but out of a Christian sense of duty, kindness, and charity. He wanted to see the men “on the outside.” Cash and his band the Great Eighties Eight gave a professional effort, but the Soledad show was no At Folsom Prison.

Cash played his last prison concert at Angola in Louisiana on November 6, 1980. It was his first trip to Angola. Charles Colson, a reformed convict, had invited Cash to come. Colson himself had served time. A member of Nixon’s administration, he was arrested for his part in the Watergate break-in and was sent to a federal penitentiary in Alabama. He emerged a changed man. By the time he was free, he had become an evangelical Christian and founder of Prison Fellowship International. He and Cash were a natural pairing. Both saw prisoners as just another one of God’s wandering flock. Cash’s show at Angola had a decidedly revivalist overtone to it. “Jesus Christ experienced everything ever experienced by any prisoner,” Colson spoke to the inmates. “He was betrayed to evil men by an informant—a snitch—from His closest circle of friends.”

Angola was a large prison with a dark past. It was also a true southern institution. Marty Stuart was there. He had joined Cash’s Great Eighties Eight after Marshall Grant’s departure earlier that year. It was his only prison show with Cash. The warden of the prison, he noted, was a “boss hog” type with cowboy hat, chomping on a cigar. Even more striking, at one point, a woman threw herself on Cash, hoping that he could do something to save her son, who was on death row. It is uncertain what Cash was able to for the condemned man. While the woman clutching at Cash was sincere, it was the kind of display that embarrassed Cash. He was a man, not someone with magical powers.

Even so, Cash had an awesome presence. The inmate-run paper, The Angolite, wrote that when Cash stepped from his car, “hushed exclamations and expressions of awe and amazement escaped the waiting audience, many of whom were experiencing the whole jumble of emotions that lay siege to the hearts and minds of poor nobodies when they finally face a star.” Cash, the paper continued, was a “star’s star, the prince (if not king) of country music, a living legend” and “the biggest name to ever visit this area in its entire dark and torturous history.” Cash, The Angolite noted, had a “compassion for the losers in life, the unfortunates, the poor and downtrodden, perhaps because he’s had some of the same problems as many of them.” The men at Cummins or Folsom or Leavenworth couldn’t have said it better.

Angola was unusual in that Cash played for a mostly black audience. “Blacks don’t twang, they boogie,” The Angolite noted. But Cash won over even the most skeptical in the crowd. Ulysses Long, a black Muslim prisoner, said he went to the show just to pass the time. “But you know something?” he said. “I found myself really enjoying it.”

Cash’s Angola show revealed that he could still impress prison audiences. So why did he stop playing for them in 1980? He likely had no single reason for stopping. It was a new decade, and Cash, who was struggling artistically, wanted to go in a new direction. We can see his weariness playing for unresponsive prisoners at Soledad. By the end of 1980, Cash probably felt he had done as much as he could do on the prison circuit.

According to Merle Haggard, Cash stopped doing the prison shows because of concerns for his safety. Haggard wasn’t sure which show it was. Whatever the reason, for Cash, by late 1980, playing for prisoners had lost its appeal. By then, American prisons had grown worse in many ways, becoming rife with drugs, gangs, and unspeakable violence. One incident in particular revealed the stark, horrifying new realty of prison life. In February 1980, New Mexico’s state penitentiary suffered the worst prison riot in American history. It was bedlam. Inmates seized control of the prison, which became a hellscape of torture, murder, and arson. Rioting inmates turned their wrath against snitches and others with whom they had vendettas. The violence was the stuff of Hollywood horror films, but it was all too real. When it was over, at least 33 prisoners were dead and the prison itself left a smoking ruin.                   

Johnny Cash played for prisoners for decades. He created a community among them that will likely never be equaled by an entertainer. In the years after his 1968 Folsom show, everyone from B. B. King to Frank Sinatra and Jerry Garcia and Black Uhuru have played for prisoners. Merle Haggard, the former resident of San Quentin, did too. Inspired by Johnny Cash, in February of 2002, the alt-country act the Weary Boys played at Angola.

Devotion to Johnny Cash, as authors Michael Hinds and Jonathan Silverman have shown in their book Johnny Cash International, crosses borders. In 2018, the popular Mexican band Los Tigres del Norte played a show at Folsom prison in honor of the Cash’s 1968 concert there. The band itself was also celebrating its 50th anniversary. The band’s performance was filmed and debuted on Netflix in 2019.

Given their traditional Mexican sound, which is heavy on accordion dance music, Los Tigres do not sound at all like Jonny Cash. The band’s debt to the Man in Black, nevertheless, was clear during the show. Unlike Cash, the band played outdoors. But behind the stage was Greystone Chapel, made famous by Glen Sherley and Cash in 1968. The chapel is perhaps much larger than someone who has never seen it before might think, towering over the players. Its grim stone façade is imposing, but also symbolic of how inmates might seek redemption within prison walls. Los Tigres mixed with the crowd and even allowed an inmate to join them on stage playing accordion.  

Los Tigres opened the show with their cover of “Folsom Prison Blues” a signature Cash tune, which they announce, is done “with a shot of tequila.” The audience for the show is overwhelmingly made up of Latino and Latina fans. No major Latin band had performed inside Folsom since Cash did in 1968. In that time, the Folsom population changed dramatically. In fifty years, the population went from being mostly white to majority Latino and African American. In 2017, according to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, the Latino inmate population was 43.5%–far higher than the percentage of Latinos in California’s general population. African Americans are also overrepresented, making up 28.4% of the prison population as compared to 5% of the general.

The presence of women at Folsom is also a dramatic change in the prison’s history. When Cash played there, no women were inside. When Los Tigres played there in 2018, Folsom housed 400 female inmates. While they were not generally incarcerated for crimes as violent as men commit, their presence shows how California and the nation at large has chosen to implement retributive models for justice over the past 50 years. California’s “Three Strikes” law has been especially harsh. And as the Netflix doc informs us, one unfortunate female prisoner was released only to be deported once she was free.

Were Johnny Cash alive today, he would no doubt have strong opinions about the United States’ the harsh and racist attitudes toward law and order and the criminal justice system. He would have been disgusted by the Trump administration’s open embrace of white supremacists, ban on Muslim immigration from many countries, and the “no tolerance” policy at the southern border, which resulted in the forced separation and destruction of hundreds of families.

What is clear is that Johnny Cash empathized with inmates. He believed men and women could change, and prisoners appreciated Cash’s sincerity and honesty. Johnny Cash was a “preacher” and “a minister” Marty Stuart said in 2002. “He touches lives everywhere he goes. All he has to do is show up.”

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