55 Years Ago, Johnny Cash Recorded His Infamous Live Show at San Quentin State Prison

Headshot of American country singer Johnny Cash (1932 - 2003) singing on stage in a still from the film, 'Johnny Cash - The Man, His World, His Music,' directed by Robert Elfstrom, 1969
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It is hard to believe that one of the most iconic artists held a famous show 55 years ago. That’s right, over five decades ago, Johnny Cash brought his guitar and his band to San Quentin State Prison in California, performing his hit songs in front of inmates and recorded a live album. While Cash never did a stint in prison himself, he was arrested several times over the years and felt a strange kinship with the folks serving time.

During another show at San Quentin in 1958, another famous star was in the audience, serving time for burglary. Merle Haggard said that watching Cash perform helped him turn his life around and inspired him to keep going with his own music. He once said about the performance, “He had the right attitude. He chewed gum, looked arrogant and flipped the bird to the guards — he did everything the prisoners wanted to do. He was a mean mother from the South who was there because he loved us. When he walked away, everyone in that place had become a Johnny Cash fan.”

American country singer Johnny Cash (1932 - 2003) and his wife June Carter Cash (1929 - 2003) leave the front gate of Kansas State Prison, circa 1968

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In the following decades, Cash continued to perform at prisons and even recorded live albums with prisoners hooting and hollering in the background. In 1968 he released Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison and a year later, Johnny Cash at San Quentin. The prisons inspired two of his hit songs: “Folsom Prison Blues” and “San Quentin.”

American country singer and songwriter Johnny Cash (1932 - 2003) plays acoustic guitar in a still from his television variety series, 'The Johnny Cash Show,' circa 1968

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Not only did Cash perform at prisons for free but he campaigned for better rights for prisoners as he felt empathy for those who messed up but wanted to turn their lives around. Of course, this could be because he could relate to drug addiction and making mistakes in life, yet always trying to improve for the ones he loved, including June Carter Cash.

What’s your favorite Johnny Cash tune?

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Kings Of Country

March 2022

From outlaws Willie & Waylon to the Man in Black, Johnny Cash, we have every tear in your beer covered

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