Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison

Cash at Folsom, 1968.

Cash at Folsom, 1968.


Johnny Cash, badass country rock musician (later played by Joaquin Phoenix in 2005’s Walk the Line)

Folsom, CA, January 1968


46 years ago today, Johnny Cash made music history by recording a live album from inside the walls of Folsom State Prison. Although he wrote the song “Folsom Prison Blues” while serving in the Air Force in the early ’50s, it wasn’t until fifteen years later that he actually performed at the titular prison. Many don’t know that he had performed in prisons before, beginning with gigs at Huntsville State Prison in 1957 and at San Quentin on New Year’s Day 1958, but At Folsom Prison was the first album Cash released that was actually recorded from a live prison concert. By the time of his Folsom gig, he had actually served some jail time.

Cash arrived in Sacramento, slightly southwest of Folsom, on January 10, 1968 with June Carter, his father Ray, and producer Bob Johnston. His fellow performers Carl Perkins, the Statler Brothers, and the Tennessee Three would join them on stage. During the next two days, the bands rehearsed, even receiving encouragement from then-governor Ronald Reagan, who was giving a speech nearby. The group traveled to Folsom on the morning of the 13th with two sets planned for 9:40 AM and 12:40 PM. Most of the tracks on the LP, with the exception of “Give My Love to Rose” and “I Got Stripes”, are from the earlier set.

I sincerely hope you own this album.

I sincerely hope you own this album.

Perkins opened, followed by the Statler Brothers. Finally, Cash took the stage with the Tennessee Three. Naturally, he opened with a rowdy rendition of “Folsom Prison Blues” before continuing a set full of songs about prison. June, whom he would propose to and marry within a month, also joined him for the duets “Jackson” and “Give My Love to Rose”. Both sets closed with the band’s version of “Greystone Chapel”, a song that had been written by inmate Glen Sherley who was serving time for armed robbery.

Columbia was not excited about the album, preferring to promote its pop stars rather than its country mainstays. However, it quickly rocketed to #1 on the country charts, even after a setback in the aftermath of the Bobby Kennedy assassination. The album was certified gold by the RIAA in October 1968, five months after its release, for shipping 500,000 copies. Since its release, it has been included in many lists as one of the greatest albums of all time, with CMT even calling it the 3rd greatest country album ever.

What’d He Wear?

Cash was legendary for being the “Man in Black” and he didn’t disappoint for the Folsom performance, showing up in a black leather coat, black three-piece suit, and white shirt.

Johnny and June make their grand arrival at Folsom.

Johnny and June make their grand arrival at Folsom.

Cash’s black leather jacket was single-breasted, buttoning down the front with a shirt-style collar and rounded front yokes. The coat has plain cuffs and extends to his lower thighs. It is similar to the jacket worn by Brad Pitt in Killing Them Softly.

The black suit jacket is also single-breasted, with slim lapels that roll down to a single-button closure. The jacket’s lining was burgundy silk.

 Cash preparing himself, Cash backstage, and Cash doing what he does best.

Cash preparing himself, Cash backstage, and Cash doing what he does best.

Underneath the jacket, Cash wears a double-breasted vest with six buttons – three to fasten. The suit is completed by a pair of high-rise black flat front trousers that fit snugly through the leg, breaking high with plain-hemmed bottoms over a pair of black leather loafers. The shoes are well-shined, of course, with raised heels and pointed toes.

June and Johnny during their first duet of "Jackson".

June and Johnny during their first duet of “Jackson”.

The only non-black item of his wardrobe that day (although I admittedly don’t know what color his underwear was…) was a white dress shirt with narrow collar and a plain front.

For the film Walk the Line, released in 2005, Joaquin Phoenix wore a very similar black ranch suit as Cash. Phoenix’s jacket was single-breasted with slim peak lapels and slightly padded shoulders with roped sleeveheads. The most distinctive detail of the suit is its Western-style pointed front yokes on each chest and a rear yoke across the back, in addition to the stitched edges. The jacket also had double rear vents, flapped slanted hip pockets, and two satin-covered buttons on the front. Due to the angles, I can’t tell if it was a three-piece suit like Cash’s, but it appears not to be.

The white shirt is also similar, with slim collar and button-fastened squared cuffs, albeit a front placket rather than a plain front. Unlike earlier in the film, he wears no jewelry, with his wedding ring abandoned and his watch gone (a smart move for performing in a prison). Underneath, he wears a white crew-neck undershirt.

Joaquin Phoenix, making Johnny proud with his Oscar-nominated performance in 2005's Walk the Line.

Joaquin Phoenix, making Johnny proud with his Oscar-nominated performance in 2005’s Walk the Line.

Go Big or Go Home

At Folsom Prison is one of the most badass albums ever made. While the ballads may be traditonally tamer than what you’d hear on a Pantera or some Nordic satanist death metal band’s album, let’s consider the circumstances: it’s the Man in Black playing songs about prison to a group of prisoners. And they’re fucking loving it.

Cash shakes hands with inmate Glen Sherley in mid-performance.

Cash shakes hands with inmate Glen Sherley in mid-performance.

The aforementioned Glen Sherley, the armed robber who contributed “Greystone Chapel” to Cash’s set lists that day, eventually became quite a renowned figure on his own, recording a live album from prison on his own as well as writing a hit for Eddy Arnold. Sherley was released from Folsom in 1971 and was immediately greeted by Cash at the prison gates. While Cash was gracious enough to take Sherley on – he was a firm advocate in prison reform and prisoners’ rights – Cash didn’t take too kindly to Sherley’s casual threats about killing members of Cash’s entourage, and Sherley was “dismissed”. (The violent Glen Sherley died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound seven years later.)

While some gambles worked (At Folsom Prison), and others didn’t (Glen Sherley), Johnny Cash proved himself to be a man of strong character, giving people and ideas a chance when others wouldn’t. He had struggles of his own, ranging from the haunting memories of his brother’s death and his continuous drug addiction, but he was always willing and open to give people the chance they deserve, whether it’s for a lifelong career or just an afternoon of entertainment.

How to Get the Look

He may have been the Man in Black, but Cash injected a bit of white into his look at Folsom for a good variation of a traditional look.

This is about as "sassy" as Johnny Cash could ever look.

This is about as “sassy” as Johnny Cash could ever look.

  • Black three-piece suit, consisting of:
    • Single-breasted jacket with slim lapels, 2-button front, plain cuffs, Western-style front and rear yokes, straight flapped pockets, and double rear vents
    • Double-breasted waistcoat with a 6-button front and hip pockets
    • Flat front trousers with high rise and plain-hemmed bottoms
  • White long-sleeve button-down dress shirt with narrow collars, placket-less front, and squared buttoned cuffs
  • Black leather pointed-toe shoes with raised heels
  • Black dress socks
  • Black leather thigh-length jacket with single-breasted button-down front and shirt-style collars

Do Yourself a Favor and…

Buy the album and the movie, which features Phoenix as Cash singing “Cocaine Blues”, a standout from the album.

Of course, nothing can beat Johnny himself.

The Quote

I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die…

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  1. Pingback: Johnny Cash in All Black (Walk the Line) | BAMF Style

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