Johnny Cash’s first big hit was “Folsom Prison Blues” in 1955 and he went on to be one of the biggest names in Country music, and Rock and Roll, for the next ten years. But by the late 60s Cash’s career was on the slippery down slope. He was having an open affair with fellow performer June Carter. He was addicted to pain killers and had been arrested for trespassing and drug trafficking. He was the worst sort of live performer who routinely missed concert dates, and because of his addiction was usually too bombed out of his mind to perform when he didn’t miss. His outlaw persona was catching up with him. By the end of 1967, he was one failed album away from just becoming another casualty to the Rock and Roll lifestyle.
He earlier decided to record a live album at the prison whose name launched his career, Folsom County Prison just outside Sacramento, California. Cash had played prisons before, and had even played Folsom before, but this would be the first time he’d record a live album while doing so. This would also be the first time he would be sober for the performance. On New Year’s 1968, Cash vowed to turn his life around, if only for June and his children’s sakes. And “At Folsom Prison” would be his comeback, both professionally and personally.
“Hello, I’m Johnny Cash”. With these words, two thousand hardened inmates of Folsom County Prison jumped up to wild applause as if they were high school kids at the year’s big concert event. Cash’s clean and sober performance was his best in years. Cash ended the performance by unexpectedly playing a song “Greystone Chapel”, written by one of the inmates.
Only two reporters accompanied Cash inside the prison to cover the event because most of the media had already dismissed Cash as a has-been, and one of whom was hired by Cash to document the event for the album sleeve. They witnessed the rebirth of a star and they’re still receiving royalties for their photographs to this day. At Folsom Prison is easily Cash’s best live performance and arguably one of the best live albums ever.
At Folsom Prison was released just four months later and resurrected Johnny Cash’s career. The clean and sober Johnny Cash learned to cultivate his outlaw status without it killing him. He would eventually divorce his wife and marry June Carter. Cash would become a leading advocate for prison reform in the United States and eventually testify to Congress in 1978.