On January 13, 1968, Johnny Cash, considered by many one of the 20th century’s most influential musicians, performed two shows inside California’s Folsom Prison. It was an appropriate choice for a performer known as a bit of an outlaw, recognized with a fondness for dark clothing that earned him the nickname “The Man in Black.” The performances and resulting album, At Folsom Prison, helped revitalize Cash’s previously lagging career. “That’s where things really started for me again,” he told Rolling Stone magazine in a 1973 article.
But Cash who died in September 2003 at 71, wasn’t just seeking personal gain when he decided to play behind bars. He was also thinking of those for whom he was performing. Raised in Dyess, Ark., Johnny Cash became a Christian when he was only 12. Throughout his life, he showed an eager desire to live according to the Gospel of Jesus. Despite his Baptist/Pentecostal upbringing, Cash was never terribly concerned about denominations. He also trusted wholeheartedly in the Word of God.
“Telling others is part of our faith all right,” Cash said. “The Gospel of Christ must always be an open door with a welcome sign for all.”
But stardom, the peaks of fame and the demands of his profession presented him with countless temptations and struggles. He would see the dark valleys of his drug and alcohol addiction. Cash saw himself in the eyes of the men behind bars. Several brushes with the law only made his situation worse. Cash believed in redemption and argued prisoners could be rehabilitated.
“He had an affinity for the common man, the downtrodden the people who lived on the margins, said Michael Streissguth, author of Johnny Cash: The Biography. “To quote Merle Haggard, ‘Wealthy men don’t go to prison in this country.’” Cash knew that. He realized he could have easily been in prison himself.
Cash saw the Folsom concert as an opportunity to redeem himself. In fall 1967, he vowed to give up drugs and went through rehab. He struggled for years to hold true to his promise. He later admitted taking a large number of pills the morning of the concert – but the vow was necessary to prevent June Carter from leaving him. She labored heroically to keep him off amphetamines.
Cash agreed to perform two shows at Folsom and was particular about the songs in the set lists. On the eve of the concert, he met with his friend, Rev. Floyd Gressett, who ministered for state prisoners. Gressett gave Cash a tape of “Greystone Chapel,” a song written and recorded by Folsom prisoner Glen Sherley. After listening to the song, Cash agreed to perform the song the next day.
The lyrics along with Sherley’s life story inspired hope. Arrested for armed robbery, he was serving a sentence of five years to life. His song described the Folsom chapel as a refuge for some prisoners and even in some of the toughest of circumstances; they could see God’s grace: “Inside the walls of prison, my body may be, but the Lord has set my soul free.”
Cash was so captivated by Sherley’s story and songwriting skills that he later made requests to public officials to grant him parole. Cash even arranged a small record company to make a recording of Sherley’s own prison concert in 1971 which made it easier for officials to believe Cash when he said he would give him a job if paroled. After Sherley’s release, he stayed true to his promise and invited him tour. But Sherley was erratic during the tour, even threatening a key member of Cash’s band. When Cash learned of this, he fired Sherley who returned to California and fell back into drug abuse. On May 11, 1978, Sherley committed suicide. The news really took a toll on Cash. Some faulted him for poor judgment and rumors spread that he didn’t even write “Greystone Chapel.”
Cash took a chance on Sherley when many people wouldn’t have. Cash knew grace and forgiveness were God’s commands and didn’t take them lightly. He was able to look at his own life, recognizing that he was a sinner and a recipient of grace and mercy from God. So taking a chance on Sherley was not just an act of kindness but a powerful reflection of his faith.
Another huge influence on Cash was evangelist Billy Graham who sought out Cash in the early ’70 when he heard of his commitment to God. Cash quickly became a welcome figure at Billy Graham Crusades.
“He and I spent a lot of time talking issues over and we determined that I wasn’t called to be an evangelist…” Cash recalled of his first face-to-face conversations with Graham. “He had advised me to keep singing ‘Folsom Prison Blues’ and ‘A Boy Named Sue’ and all those other outlaw songs if that’s what people wanted to hear and then when t came time to do a gospel song, give it everything I had. Put my heart and soul into all my music.”
Cash may have battled his demons, and his sins magnified by the media, but one thin g few could deny was his faith. Observers were continually amazed with the grace Cash exuded despite the legions of forces working against him.
In his final days, despite moment-by-moment battles with diabetes, glaucoma, asthma and a progressive, debilitating case of autonomic nephropathy which pretty much confined Cash to a wheelchair during his waking hours, the Man in Black was anything but in a black mood. In fact, he was celebrating his life and his redeemer while he could.
“I’m thrilled to death with life,” Cash told Larry King. “Life is – the way God has given it to me – was just a platter. A golden platter of life laid out there for me. It’s been beautiful.”