Jan. 13, 2022

Johnny Cash Plays Folsom Prison

Johnny Cash Plays Folsom Prison

January 13, 1968. American singer and songwriter Johnny Cash records his best selling live album in front of an audience of convicts. This episode includes a portion of "Jugo Blues" by janogonzalez, licensed under a Creative Commons License ( https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/. )

This episode of History Daily has been archived, but you can still listen to it as a subscriber to Noiser+, Wondery+, or as a Prime Member with the Amazon Music app.


Cold Open


It’s November 2nd, 1967, late evening in Walker County, Georgia.

A Cadillac Eldorado speeds through a woodland road, its driver high on prescription pills and alcohol. Soon, his sweaty hands slip off the steering wheel and the car veers off the road.

The driver is shocked back to his senses, hits the brakes, as the Cadillac careens into the darkness of the woods.

Miraculously, the man behind the wheel, country music star Johnny Cash, has sustained only minor injuries.

He staggers out of the car dressed in all black with a bottle of booze still in his hand. Johnny is miserable. His career, his personal life, now his car, are a wreck. Feeling washed up and hopeless, he abandons the Cadillac and wanders away from the scene.

But Johnny is not yet at rock bottom. After his car accident, he goes on a fierce bender that ends with him in handcuffs, trying to pay off a cop to let him go. But the cop doesn’t take the bribe. And instead, locks Johnny up in the Walker County Jail. Johnny is charged with, among other things, attempting to bribe an officer of the law. A local sheriff takes pity on Johnny and throws out the charges. But first, the sheriff warns the singer that if he doesn’t clean up his act soon, it may be too late.

Moved by the kindness of the local sheriff, Johnny will try to provide similar inspiration to others who have fallen through society’s cracks. Two months later, Johnny will go to prison, but not as a convict. Instead, on January 13th, 1968, Johnny Cash will stand in front of a crowd of around 2000 inmates at Folsom Prison in California and record one of the most iconic albums of the twentieth century.



From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.

History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world. 

Today is January 13th, 1968. Johnny Cash Plays Folsom Prison.

Act One: Folsom Prison Blues


It’s January 1968 in Folsom State Prison, California. Not long before Johnny Cash plays his iconic gig. In the yard of the gray granite prison, surrounded by a handful of other convicts, one inmate is putting on a show. 32-year-old Glen Sherley strums an old guitar and sings what he feels is the best song he’s written yet. It’s called Greystone Chapel and it’s about the prison church inside Folsom that he attends every Sunday. His small but appreciative audience applauds as he reaches the end, even though most of them have heard the song plenty of times.

Glen isn’t the only inmate permitted to play guitar during free hours. Across the yard, one of the black convicts plays rhythm and blues to a much larger crowd. But Glen loves country, gospel, and rockabilly, and his hero, the famous country star, Johnny Cash, is king of all three.

Glen has been a Cash fan ever since the release of Cash’s song, Folsom Prison Blues in 1955. Glen feels that the lyrics of Cash’s song perfectly capture the melancholy experience of being a convict. That’s something Glen is an authority on. In the past, Glen has served sentences in San Quentin, Chino, and Soledad prisons, all for armed robbery. Now he’s serving three years at Folsom for robbing another bank. He started to believe that his spiral of crime and punishment would continue for the rest of his life.

Until he heard about Johnny Cash coming to perform a live album at his prison. The news lit a fire inside Glen Sherley. He never imagined that he would get to see his musical idol play, and certainly not in Folsom. Now, he has become fixated by the prospect of meeting Johnny, maybe even getting the chance to play the men in black, one of his songs.

After he finishes his most recent song, Glen puts down his guitar and leaves it with his fellow convicts, running over to the prison's chapel, where he sees Reverend Floyd Gressett, who sometimes works at the prison and knows Johnny Cash personally. Reverend Gressett has encouraged Glen’s songwriting and Glen hopes that the Reverend might do him a favor. But the Reverend hears Glen's request, he knows that what's being asked of him is illegal. Glen wants the preacher to smuggle something out of jail for him. Gressett should refuse. But he is moved by Glen’s passion. So he smiles and tells Glen that he will see what he can do.


It’s Sunday, January 12th, in Sacramento, California. One day before Johnny Cash plays Folsom.

Johnny and his band, the Tennessee Three, rehearse their set in the ballroom of the El Rancho Hotel. The band members rarely rehearse these days as they’ve been performing with each other since the mid-fifties, but today they make an exception. Johnny has a lot riding on the Folsom concert tomorrow. His career has been in the doldrums for a while now. Stories in the media about his arrests and drug abuses have added to the picture of him as a fading star. Columbia Records, Johnny's label, was originally horrified by the idea for this live album, fearing that a further association with criminals was the last thing Johnny’s tainted reputation needed. But, thanks to the support of the story producer Bob Johnston, the album is going ahead.

And Johnny is especially happy that another recording artist has agreed to perform with him tomorrow: June Carter. Last year, the two singers won a Grammy for their duet “Jackson,” one of Johnny’s few successes in recent years. But, more importantly, Johnny has been in love with June for over a decade. Since divorcing his first wife last year, he has repeatedly proposed to June but she keeps turning him down, claiming she will only marry him after he has “cleaned up” his act. Johnny has been trying hard, attempting to kick his alcohol and drug habits, but hasn't managed it yet. Still, while they rehearse `Jackson’, Johnny winks at June and slashes her a smile. He knows that having her good influence around will make getting clean a lot easier.

After rehearsal, the band is visited in their motel room by Johnny’s friend: Reverend Floyd Gressett, who’s just come from Folson. From his coat pocket, he pulls out a tape recording, tells Johnny that he needs to listen. It’s a demo by a prison inmate.

When Johnny plays the tape, he is blown away by Glen Sherley’s song. It tells the story of a convict who finds freedom inside the prison church. As a man who has often prayed to God to help him overcome his personal demons, the lyrics resonate with Johnny.

When the song ends, someone in the room says: “John, if they let this guy out of prison, he’ll put you out of business.”

Johnny laughs. Reverend Gressett asks Johnny if he will meet with Glen after the performance tomorrow and offer some advice on how to pursue a recording career once he’s released from Folsom. Johnny says he will do more than that.

On the next day, on January 13th, 1968, Johnny, June, and The Tennessee Three will deliver an unforgettable performance to 2000 cheering prisoners at Folsom. And, for one particular audience member, the experience will be life-changing.

Act Two: Hello, I’m Johnny Cash


It’s the morning of January 13th, 1968, in Folsom State Prison. Minutes before Johnny Cash steps out to record his live album.

Sitting on the front bench of what is usually a large dining hall, Glen Sherley claps his hands and stamps his feet along with a thousand other whooping inmates rearing and ready to see the show. Johnny is performing two sets today. One this morning, and then another later in the afternoon for another set of inmates. Glen is happy he gets to see Johnny play first.

The rowdy crowd of convicts have already been enjoying a number of warm-up acts, including another of Glen's heroes, country artist Carl Perkins, who performed “Blue Suede Shoes,” the hit song he wrote for Elvis. But now The Tennessee Three are on stage getting ready, and Glen knows it’s only a matter of moments before Johnny takes the stage.

Glen looks back at rows and rows of excited prisoners sitting behind him in the hall, all wearing blue and white prison uniforms. Most are minor criminals. But some are extremely dangerous men; gang members, murderers, rapists, - many of whom are serving life sentences.

And then around the surrounding walls are prison guards, all carrying rifles. Glen knows they won’t hesitate to fire at anyone who should try to step out of line. But he thinks this extra security is unnecessary. This is a special moment for these convicts. No one would risk disrupting it. If they did, the inmates themselves would likely handle the situation before the guards even had a chance to intervene.

And just then, an MC steps up to the microphone and reveals that Johnny is just seconds away from appearing. Crowd goes wild. But the MC motions for them to be quiet. He asks the inmates if, for the sake of the recording, they could refrain from properly applauding until Johnny has introduced himself. The unruly crowd obliges, and a hush falls over the room as a black-suited Johnny appears on stage with guitar in hand. Glen thinks he looks paler and older than he expected. He recognizes the signs of a hard life in Johnny’s craggy face. Still, Glen watches with anticipation as Johnny leans into the mike and utters his trademark introduction.

“Hello, I’m Johnny Cash.”

Crowd then erupts with applause, hoots, and whistles as Johnny and the band immediately launch into `Folsom Prison Blues’. The song remains a favorite for Glen, with its story of a prisoner pining for freedom as he listens to a distant train. When Johnny delivers the provocative line “I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die” the inmates roar with delight. 

It seems to Glen that Johnny’s set was tailor-made for this audience. He sings songs about incarceration, murder, drugs, despair, regret, and redemption. But some are also laced with dark humor, such as `25 Minutes to Go’ in which a condemned man counts down to his execution.

Glen glances at the many visitors lining the walls of the packed dining hall. He spots Reverend Floyd Gressett, tries to catch his eye. Glen hasn’t seen Gressett since he persuaded him to smuggle out his demo tape. Glen assumes Gresset failed to get the tape to Johnny. But still, Glen isn’t going to let that possibility bring him down, not today.

Then, after taking a big drink of water, Johnny announces that he has a surprise for the end of the show. He’s going to record a brand new song which he heard for the first time last night. Johnny proclaims, “It was written by somebody here at Folsom prison.”

An electric jolt seems to pass through Glen. He whips his head around to where Reverend Gressett is sitting and sees Gressett smiling back at him.

First, though, Johnny invites June Carter on stage to sing `Jackson’. The crowd loves June, knowing from the papers that she’s Johnny’s girl. But Glen is too distracted by what he’s just heard to enjoy their performance. The next few tracks pass in a blur.

Finally, Johnny reaches the last song in his set. With sweat dripping down his cheeks, Johnny reveals who wrote it. He tells the crowd, “this song is written by our friend Glen Sherley. Hope we do your song justice, Glen.”

Glen is astounded when Johnny Cash and The Tennessee Three, with June Carter on backup vocals, begin playing `Greystone Chapel.’ The crowd roars when they too recognize the song he’s been singing in the prison yard for months. Glen had only ever hoped that Johnny might hear his song and provide some encouragement. He had never imagined that it might actually get played as part of this live album. He becomes increasingly emotional as his hero sings him back his own lyrics.

“There's a greystone chapel here at Folsom

A house of worship in this den of sin

You wouldn't think that God had a place here at Folsom

But he saved the souls of many lost men.”

Glen has tears in his eyes as the band reaches the climax of the song. Johnny reaches down into the audience, shakes his hand as the room erupts into applause.

The live album `Johnny Cash At Folsom Prison’ recorded on June 13th, 1968, will go on to revitalize Johnny’s career. But Johnny’s life isn’t the only one changed by its success. As a result of the song Greystone Chapel’s inclusion, Glen Sherley’s musical career will take off too.

Act Three: The Release


It’s January 31st, 1971 at Vacaville Prison, California. Two years after Johnny Cash recorded his live album at Folsom.

With a guitar in his hands, Glen stands on a stage and looks out over his audience of convicted criminals, many of whom he has known from various prisons over the past decade. He’s now recording his own live prison album, eponymously named Glen Sherley, but the difference between his and Johnny’s album is that Glen is still a prisoner. 

When Johnny Cash At Folsom Prison was released in 1968, the album reached the number one spot on the country music Billboard charts, in no small part because of the success of Glen’s song `Greystone Chapel’. Glen’s story caught the public’s imagination and the attention of the music industry. As a result, Glen’s career started to blossom and eventually, a recording label agreed to release the live album he’s recording today.

Before Glen strums the opening chord of his next song, he tells the audience that they may recognize this one because “The Man took it and made it his.” The audience cheers as Glen launches into the song that's making him famous: `Greystone Chapel.’

Later that year, when Glen is released from prison, his hero Johnny Cash is there to greet him at the gates with a warm embrace. Soon, Johnny gives him a spot on his upcoming tour. And since recording the album at Folsom, Johnny has mostly cleaned up his act, as June hoped. The two got married, and she is helping him to kick his amphetamine addiction.

Sadly, Glen’s battles with his inner demons are less successful. After touring with Johnny for eighteen months, he is fired for violent behavior and threatening to kill another musician. After leaving the tour, Glen’s downward spiral continues until May of 1978 when he shoots a man while high on drugs. That same month, Glen takes his own life at the age of 42. When Johnny hears about it, he is devastated and agrees to pay for the funeral.

Johnny Cash wanted to perform in Folsom Prison to bring hope and comfort to men who lived most of their lives in a cage. He stood before a crowd of inmates, reached out his hand to an imprisoned man, and offered him friendship. And, while Glen Sherley’s story ended in tragedy, that moment of kindness on January 13th, 1968 has been forever immortalized on one of the greatest albums ever recorded.



Next on History Daily. January 14th, 1967. A gathering of thousands in San Francisco kicks off the Summer of Love, and introduces “hippies” to the mainstream media.

From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.

Audio editing by Mollie Baack.

Sound design by Derek Behrens. 

Music by Lindsay Graham.

This episode is written and researched by James Benmore.

Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.