One of Johnny Cash's most iconic live albums is Johnny Cash at San Quentin (1969). By the late sixties and the live album recording, Cash has cemented his reputation as a music industry outsider. He identified with convicts in a way most musicians couldn't, producing a sound that inmates in prisons all over the U.S. could relate with. Cash never spent more than a few overnight stays in jail, just enough for him to understand he didn't want a life of crime.
Johnny Cash Plays At San Quentin
When Cash played San Quentin for the first time on January 1, 1960, the future country music recording legend Merle Haggard was an inmate. Haggard was just a kid, 19 years old and sentenced to prison for armed robbery. He credits Cash with turning his life away from crime to music, and the rest is country music history.
A few years later, Johnny Cash was back in the states and getting airplay time with "Folsom Prison Blues." This was Cash's second hit single, released in 1955.
Cash’s Passion for Reform
Johnny Cash went on to play several free concerts for prison populations throughout his career. He also testified before Congress in 1972 about prison reform. Redemption, even for criminals, was a theme Cash faithfully believed in.
Cash reportedly developed an interest in life behind prison walls when he saw a movie called Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison while serving with the U.S. Air Force Security Service in 1951. He was serving in West Germany when he saw the movie, a fictional story about a ruthless inmate in pre-reformed Folsom Prison. Before 1944 when California prison reform took place, Folsom was notorious for the harsh torture of its inmates.