On May 1, 1968, the history of live performance albums changed forever. On this day, Johnny Cash released "At Folsom Prison." The album was recorded live at Folsom State Prison in Folsom, California on January 13th of the same year. This prison was a maximum security facility in the northeast of Sacramento, California. Throughout his life, Cash played a number of shows at prisons, but never served time. "Folsom Prison Blues" was written by Cash in 1953 while he was serving with the United States Air Force in Germany. The song was inspired by a film entitled Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison. Two years later, Cash recorded the song and it became one of the songs that Cash will forever be remembered for along with one of the most iconic lines in the history of country music which states "But, I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die." Cash once said "I sat with my pen in my hand trying to think up of the worst reason a person could have for killing another person, and that's what came to mind." This song was his first big hit. This album went on to also open doors for bigger concerts and a network television show.
Before performing at Folsom Prison, Cash performed at the Huntsville State Prison in Texas. After hearing the response from those inmates, that is when the thought of live recording an album came about. The album was recorded two shows at Folsom State Prison and the album consists of fifteen tracks from the first show and two from the second. The seventeen track album consists of songs from past albums like "25 Minutes to Go," "The Long Black Veil," and "I Still Miss Someone." By August of 1968, sold 300,000 copies and two months later it was certified gold by the Recording Industry Association of America for selling 500,000 copies. The success of At Folsom Prison regenerated Cash's career and has continued to sell copies. The album went on to also win two GRAMMYs, which included Best Album Notes and Best Country Vocal Performance.
One may ask, why did this album change the course of live performance albums? Along with Folsom Prison, Cash performed at San Quentin, where Merle Haggard actually served time when Cash performed. This was the first time that Haggard saw Cash perform. These two alone changed the future of the country music industry.
At the time, live albums were not a staple to the country music industry. Live albums were just becoming a trend in the rock with different groups showing off their improvisational parts to the songs in a concert. Not only was his album a live album, it was also going to be a concept record. The concept was that he was playing prison-related songs for a crowd of prisoners. These two concepts changed the way an album was made, both with the live concept as well as a concept record. For example, if this would not have happened it is quite possible that Kelsea Ballerini's "Unapologetically" would not have been created as it a story of loss, life and love, or have the live record At the Ryman from Emmylou Harris. Now a days, they also create tour documentaries. Without the help from Johnny Cash, it may have taken years for someone to do any of these things, let alone if anyone would have ever thought of doing live performances and creating an amazing record after the fact.
Cash changed the life of many inmates at these shows. It changed the way that artists recorded live albums to be more creative with their audiences as opposed to just recording them at a show. To this day, Cash's live albums are being re-released. There are also cover bands that are doing what he did to help the inmates cope.
Written by Brooklyn Beccue