“We’ve been invited to go to Folsom Prison with Johnny Cash,” Dan said. It was early January 1968. Dan Poush and I were a team, working for the Star-Free Press in Ventura, California. He was the photographer; I was the writer.
“Who invited us?” I asked.
“A minister I met at a New Year’s Eve party.” In that era such an invitation sounded dubious, especially when he added, “He’s one of Cash’s best friends.”
“Dan,” I told him. “I’d like to meet this minister.”
The Reverend Floyd Gressett, pastor of the Avenue Community Church in Ventura, called me a few days later and asked me to meet him at Cash’s parents’ home.
“John and June are coming into town the day before the concert,” he said. “They’ll be there, too.”
Cash had moved to Casitas Springs from Encino to open an office on Ventura’s Main Street in November 1961. Cash and his then-wife, Vivian, had been living on eleven acres in a ranch-style home perched on a hill that was visible from the road that connects Ventura to Ojai. In those days, before the Folsom Prison album changed his life, our newspaper tended to write negative stories about Cash, like the time neighbors complained about him playing loud Christmas music from the rooftop speakers on his house. The article was headlined, “Johnny Cash Has a Blue Christmas.”
At Cash’s parents’ home, I took pictures of him with his mother, holding one of his albums, grouped him together with his parents, sister Reba, her son, and Reverend Gressett. The next day, Dan, Gressett and I met John and June at PSA Airlines in Los Angeles for the flight to Sacramento.
What most people don’t know today is that Johnny Cash’s famous Folsom Prison concert was an event that had its beginnings many years before. Reverend Gressett ministered to prisoners in the California State Prison system. Gressett started visiting Earl C. Green in the county jail when he was charged with murdering a man with a baseball bat at Matillia Lake near Ojai. After Green was convicted, Gressett went to see him on death row at San Quentin, where he was scheduled for execution. “After eighteen months on ‘the row,’” Gressett told me, “he received a reduced term to life imprisonment and was transferred to Folsom Prison. I continued to visit him at Folsom and he became the ‘Voice of Folsom Prison’ on their radio station that was beamed into the cells.”
Green was a country-western fan who especially loved Johnny Cash’s records.
“One time when I visited Green,” Gressett continued, “he asked me what the possibility was of Johnny visiting the inmates.”
Gressett told him he would see what he could do.
It took two years to schedule a day for the appearance. Columbia Records cooperated and helped coordinate last-minute details with Coach Lloyd V. Kelley, supervisor of recreation at Folsom. That first, unpublicized concert was held in November 1966. It was such a success that whenever Reverend Gressett visited the prison again, the inmates and officials asked when Cash could return. That finally occurred on January 13, 1968.
On the flight to Sacramento, John, wearing a blue blazer with a white turtle-necked sweater, wrote song lyrics in a blue spiral notebook. June had her brown hair pulled back in a bun and wore a bright red coat over her blue dress. As we stepped off the plane, she looked at the beautiful California weather and in her southern belle style, proclaimed, “It’s a huckleberry pickin’ day!”
We arrived at the El Rancho Motel and checked in. Cash was nervous about the weather in Nashville. He feared that the snow and ice would make it impossible for Carl Perkins, the Statler Brothers, the Tennessee Three, and Columbia’s A&R man, Bob Johnston, to fly to Sacramento. So he called Nashville and found they had left and were laid over in San Francisco. While waiting for the others, we all met in one of our rooms. Reverend Gressett said he had a favor to ask of John.
“Johnny, I want you to hear a song written by Glen Sherley, an inmate in Folsom, serving five to life for armed robbery. You’ve been so busy that I haven’t had a chance to tell you about it but I thought if you could mention tomorrow that you’ve heard the tape, it would please that ol’ boy who wrote it.”
“Does anyone have a tape recorder?” Cash asked.
“I do,” I replied, and went to get the reel-to-reel Sony recorder that I had brought to record the concert for research purposes.
“All right, this is a take on ‘Greystone Chapel,’” a deep voice, similar to Cash’s own voice, said on the tape. Then the singing began:
Inside the walls of prison, my body may be,
But the Lord has set my soul free . . .
As the lyrics filled the room, accompanied a bass beat from the prisoner’s guitar, Cash’s usual straight-faced, deep-creased cheeks began changing to a smile, with his eyes glowing, radiating enthusiasm.
There’s a Greystone chapel here at Folsom,
A house of worship in this den of sin.
You wouldn’t think God had a place at Folsom,
But he’s saved the soul of many lost men.
When the tape was finished, Cash said, “This has got to be recorded as a single, and I want to record it tomorrow on the album during the show.” Cash began scribbling the words down in a notebook and tried singing the phrase, while beating out the rhythm with one hand on his knee, the other hand tapping a pen on the desk.
That evening Cash was dressed in a blue jumpsuit and cowboy boots when his A&R man Bob Johnston and the other performers arrived.
“Do you ever work on a stool?” Johnston asked Cash.
“Yes, that’s what I plan to do,” Cash said.
“Are you going to have someone introduce you?”
“I thought I’d come out and introduce myself and sing.”
“Great!” exclaimed Johnston. “Come out and say, ‘I’m Johnny Cash!’ They’ll go wild!”
The next day we left the motel in black limousines and arrived at the California State Prison at Folsom just after eight o’clock. The limos were parked in the prison parking lot, and we boarded a school bus. The huge gates of Folsom opened to allow the bus inside. A second set had to be opened after the first was shut behind us. Once we were inside and off the bus, some of the prisoners hollered welcomes and praise as Cash walked across the yard’s concrete path to a temporary dressing room.
“How you doin’?” Cash asked individual prisoners, as he walked by them in the yard, under a warm California sun.
Just before eleven o’clock, DJ Hugh Cherry from Los Angeles introduced Carl Perkins, who began warming up the crowd with hits like “Blue Suede Shoes.” Then the Statler Brothers sang. Finally, the one they were all waiting for came out, sat on his stool center stage and said in that deep, God-like voice, “Hello . . . I’m Johnny Cash.”
Johnston was right. The applause was deafening.
I was sitting in the audience with Cash’s father, Ray, and looked around at the prisoners with some trepidation. I had never been in a prison before. I was stunned at how many of them had clean-cut, baby faces and could have been the boy next door. Of course, there were others with broad shoulders, shaven heads, and big tattoos, that looked like they’d rather kill you than shake your hand. Johnny started right in:
I hear the train a’comin’,
it’s rollin’ around the bend
and I ain’t seen the sunshine
since I don’t know when . . .
I’m stuck in Folsom Prison
and time keeps draggin’ on. . . .
A middle-aged black man in the audience, sitting close to the front rows, began to grin, showing his missing upper teeth. Another man, who looked like he might be a mechanic with a wife and three children in your own neighborhood, stroked his thinning, red hair with his right hand and waved the other in the air as he whistled.
That number finished, the prisoners cheered and screamed again. Two guards in the wire cage high over the stage looked nervous, staring out into the faces of a thousand convicts. But Cash sang on without incident.
The bills are all due
and my baby needs shoes
and I’m busted . . .
Cash ran through songs like “Dark as a Dungeon,” “I Still Miss Someone,” and nineteen others, backed by the Statler Brothers, the Tennessee Three, and June Carter joining in on songs like “Jackson.” The highlight came when Cash announced he was going to sing Glen Sherley’s “Greystone Chapel.” Sherley jumped out of his front-row chair with a smile I will never forget.
“I hope I do your song justice,” Cash told Sherley.
The prisoners roared—whistling, screaming, and stomping their feet in the glory of the moment, while the guards on the catwalks clutched their rifles.
We ate at the prison and returned for a second show. It was close to ten at night when it all ended with “The Orange Blossom Special,” and sweat was rolling down Cash’s face as he played the final notes on his harmonica.
Sherley was allowed to remain behind to pose with Cash for photos.
“I’m shaking so much; I can’t believe it all,” he said.
Cash told him he would be sending him a songwriter’s contract to give him royalties for “Greystone Chapel.” Sherley told Cash he had written the song in May 1967 in a recreation shack at Folsom—and had about 500 more. Both Cash and Perkins expressed strong interest in the man’s songwriting talents. One year later Cash lobbied Governor Ronald Reagan to get Sherley out of prison and gave him a job with his traveling troupe at the height of their sixties fame.
As we left the prison, June Carter asked me, “You know why the prisoners like Johnny so much? They know he’s been in trouble before and looks as mean as they do. They identify with him.”
Perkins added that this whole happening was an example of Cash’s ingenuity.
“He takes a $1.98 tape into Folsom Prison and comes out with an album.”
When we got back to the motel in Sacramento, Johnston got a call from Chuck Gregory, Columbia’s PR man for northern California.
“How did it go?”
“Wonderful!” Johnston replied. “I wish you could have been here. The expressions on the prisoners’ faces and all . . . Well, I wish you could have been here. It’s going to be a great album!”