The story of one of the most iconic songs in country music history starts with Johnny Cash watching a Crane Wilbur film. In 1953, Cash saw “Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison”, and it was this that prompted him to compose a song from the perspective of the incarcerated prisoner. This all resulted in “Folsom Prison Blues,” which is considered to be one of his most famous songs.
The track became a hit among prisoners, with Cash getting quite a few letters asking him to visit and perform at numerous prisons around the country. Cash liked the thought, and carried out several live shows from behind prison walls during the late 1950s and early 1960s.
“I’m stuck in Folsom Prison, and time keeps draggin’ on…” – JOHNNY CASH, “FOLSOM PRISON BLUES”
By 1967, however, his career was at an all time low. His drug issues were getting worse and his reputation started going downhill fast. He had to do something to get back on track, but it took a shakeup from producers at Columbia Records to make Cash right himself. He took the opportunity at that point to suggest recording a live album from inside a prison to give his career the boost it needed.
On Jan. 13, 1968, just after two days of rehearsing in a Sacramento motel, Cash and June Carter, together with the Statler Brothers, Carl Perkins and the Tennessee Three, went inside Folsom State Prison in Folsom, California.
Cash performed two concerts for the prisoners, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. Most of the songs were prison-themed, starting with the song “Folsom Prison Blues” and ending with the performance countdown, “25 Minutes to Go.”
The high point of both performances was the closing song “Greystone Chapel,” which had been composed by Folsom inmate Glen Sherley, who was there for the performance.
Urged by the concert MC, Hugh Cherry, the convicts in the crowd didn’t hold themselves back, and they reacting raucously to Cash’s songs and shout-outs. Every once in a while, even the prison guards were daunted.
After its release, the album became a critical and commercial success, giving new life to Cash’s career and motivating him to do another album at San Quentin Prison the following year.