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The reason why Johnny Cash performed in prisons

Johnny Cash’s baritone voice, sharp suits and uncompromising presence gave him a star quality of the like that we’ll never see again. So many have tried and failed to imitate his style, but it is impossible due to his natural class. His life was full of so many ups and downs that the 2005 biopic Walk the Line, starring Joaquin Phoenix, helped to etch the tumultuous existence of the rebel country star into pop culture legend. 

Whilst we could spend all day discussing Cash‘s personal life, this would be reductive, as it was his music that he should be remembered for. One key facet of Cash’s career, however, was the now-iconic prison concerts. His live album, 1968’s Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison, is one of his most enduring, as is Johnny Cash at San Quentin which arrived the following year. Cash started this trend in the late 1950s, and it would become one of his most legendary artistic feats, inspiring many more to do it, including the Sex Pistols. 

Cash first became interested in Folsom State Prison, California, whilst serving in the US Air Force Security Service. In 1953, his unit watched Crane Wilbur’s 1951 film Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison, and this would inspire an interest in Cash, that would go on to be career-defining. The film inspired Cash to write his classic track ‘Folsom Prison Blues’, the second single on Sun Records, which was released in 1955. 

Ironically, the song became a huge hit and was popular among inmates, who wrote to Cash asking him to perform for them in prisons. Two years later, in 1957, he gave his first performance at Huntsville State Prison in Texas. Galvanised by the warm reception, Cash performed at a string of other prisons in the years prior to the legendary Folsom show in 1968, and on New Year’s Day 1958, performed at the notorious San Quentin State Prison in California. 

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The Folsom Prison album pipped an interest in Cash’s work again, and in 1969 he became a huge star again, shipping 6.5 million albums and eclipsing the biggest act of the era, The Beatles. His prison concerts became more successful than any other live albums he recorded, including Strawberry Cake and Live at Madison Square Garden. ‘A Boy Name Sue’ from San Quentin, was such a hit that it reached number two on the US pop charts. Cash was back for round two of his career. 

The ’70s would see ‘The Man in Black’ take his prison performances global. He played a show at Österåker Prison, Sweden, in 1972, and released the accompanying live album På Österåker the following year. After Cash’s death in 2003, the live album A Concert Behind Prison Walls was released, a recording of his 1976 concert at Tennessee State Prison. 

A total legend, Johnny Cash lives on through his iconic prison performances. 

Listen to the live version of ‘Folsom Prison Blues’ below.