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I Went With Johnny Cash to Folsom Prison

January 12, 2018 in History

By Erin Blakemore

Country singer Johnny Cash posing outside the Folsom Prison before his performance. (Credit: Dan Poush/AP Photo)

The gates of Folsom State Prison closed behind Gene Beley. It was 1968, and it was the first time the 28-year-old had ever been to state prison.

“When you walk through there and they shut that door,” he says, “you realize that many men who have that happen never see their freedom again. It’s pretty daunting.”

Unlike the people he met inside, though, Beley wasn’t there to do time. The young reporter for the Ventura Star-Free Press was there to see country music star Johnny Cash perform for the prisoners.

It turned out to be a historic day. Cash’s January 13, 1968 performance at the California prison wasn’t just galvanizing—it revived Cash’s flagging career, produced a hit album, and has become the stuff of music legend. And Beley, who was one of just a handful of non-prisoners to witness the concert, still feels its reverberations today.

At the time, he says, Cash wasn’t exactly a beloved celebrity. “You know, John was really on the skids,” he remembers. Cash had made a string of bad headlines for doing everything from smuggling pills across the Mexico border to trespassing. He had struggled with drug use, conducted an open affair with June Carter (he ultimately divorced his first wife and remarried), and had even been targeted by hate groups. As a result, newspapers hated him—and he distrusted reporters.

Nevertheless, the Reverend Floyd Gressett, one of Cash’s closest friends, invited Beley and his colleague, photographer Dan Poush, to cover the concert. Only one other reporter, Robert Hilburn, attended.

Country singer Johnny Cash posing outside the Folsom Prison before his performance. (Credit: Dan Poush/AP Photo)

Beley recalls being surprised that Cash was close to a minister. “It seemed so incongruous,” he says.

In fact, Gressett was the reason Cash would perform at Folsom Prison in the first place. The minister also counseled state prisoners, and asked Cash if he’d be interested in meeting some of them. Cash, who had written “Folsom Prison Blues” in 1953, was intrigued by the thought of meeting inmates—and performing his song at the prison that inspired it. In November 1966, he put on a show at Folsom, and in 1968 he decided to return to record an album.

Before the concert, Beley went to Cash’s parents’ home. There, he met John …read more


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