Johnny Cash is one of the most famous outlaws in Country music history. Known for numerous hits like Folsom Prison Blues, I Walk the Line, Ring of Fire, A Boy Named Sue, One Piece At a Time, and Hurt, the “Man in Black” had a career that lasted nearly five decades.
When he died in 2003 at the age of 71, Cash left a hole in the music world that will never again be filled. He was truly one of a kind, and his influence transcended the Country music genre. Many of today’s artists name Cash as one of their musical influences, and his impact will no doubt continue.
During his career, Cash recorded hundreds of songs and dozens of albums. But what cemented his “outlaw” image in the minds of fans was his live At Folsom Prison album that he recorded in 1968.
From the iconic opening of, “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash,” to the closing song of Greystone Chapel, this legendary album was recorded while Cash performed in front of inmates at Folsom Prison.
But what about his own criminal history? Did the singer really shoot a man in Reno just to watch him die? Let’s answer today’s question – why did Johnny Cash go to prison?
In this blog post I will cover the following topics:
Johnny Cash was born in Arkansas in 1932 as the son of sharecroppers. He was one of seven children, and his mother was a devout Pentecostal who supported his passion for music. According to Biography.com, Cash started writing songs at the age of 12, and his mother saved up the money for singing lessons.
But after just three sessions, Cash’s teacher told him to stop the lessons because his natural voice – that raw, emotional sound – was the best tool he had. Cash graduated high school in 1950 and then made his way to Michigan to briefly work in an auto body plant. Then, he enlisted in the Air Force.
After he was discharged, Cash married his first wife Vivian and started his career as a mechanic. In his free time, the Arkansas native formed a band with his friends. Cash originally just strummed the guitar, but he soon became the band’s frontman.
Cash talked his way into an audition at Sun Records with two of his band members in 1954, which started the run of Johnny Cash and the Tennessee Two. They recorded a handful of hits that would end up laying the foundation for Cash’s legendary solo career.
His career started to take off in the 1960s after he relocated to California and began touring with his group that was then known as the Tennessee Three. However, his constant time on the road caused trouble in his marriage. Vivian filed for divorce in 1966, which sent Cash into a tailspin. He even went on a drug binge that resulted in him starting a forest fire.
This only added to his bad boy reputation and outlaw public persona. Those destructive actions may have given him Country music street cred, but they weren’t good for his own physical and mental health.
His life turned around in 1968 after he married June Carter, refocused on his faith, and recorded that legendary album at Folsom Prison. By the time he died, Cash had left behind a musical legacy that covered almost 50 years.
Cash’s history, of course, includes some run-ins with the law. During his life, Cash was arrested seven times between 1959 and 1968. His charges ranged from public drunkenness to reckless driving to drug possession. All were misdemeanors, with the most interesting arrest taking place during a drinking binge in the small town of Starkville, Mississippi. Cash was caught in the middle of the night picking flowers out of someone’s yard.
His most famous arrest happened in El Paso, Texas, in October of 1965. Cash had crossed over the border into Juarez to buy cheap amphetamines which he had become addicted to in the early 60s.
According to news reports, he was found with 668 Dexedrine and 475 Equanil tablets in his luggage. Cash received a suspended sentence and paid a small fine. The image of Cash being led away in handcuffs added to his bad boy reputation.
The singer did spend a few nights in jail on occasion due to his arrests. But, he never spent any real time behind bars, and he never served time in prison. That’s right. Johnny Cash wasn’t the outlaw that many fans thought he was, and he never shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die.
Those famous mug shots we’ve all seen were simply from Cash’s booking into jail after getting arrested for a misdemeanor. Cash was never incarcerated at Folsom — he wrote Folsom Prison Blues after watching the 1951 crime drama Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison.
During his career, Cash’s most popular and best-selling albums were the live albums he recorded in prisons. Most notably, Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison in 1968 and Johnny Cash at San Quentin in 1969.
Cash performed in prisons because he was sympathetic to the plight of the inmates, but at the time of his Folsom recordings, he was in rough shape. This was after his divorce and near the end of his spiral into drugs and alcohol.
His label had threatened to drop him, his pill addiction was out of control, and he was suicidal. As a result, Cash had to fight to record his live album at Folsom. He was lucky that it ended up being a huge success.
“He really felt that he had made the right decision, that he had something that audience wanted,” says Robert Hilburn, author of Johnny Cash: The Life. “He didn’t just do a greatest-hits show that day; he designed every song for that audience and their emotional needs.”
According to his drummer W.S. Holland, Cash saw himself in those inmates at Folsom when he recorded his live album.
“He realized how it could have been if the stories were true,” says Cash’s drummer W.S. Holland said. “He could’ve been out there, looking at somebody doing a show.”
The success of the shows at Folsom and the best-selling record that came from them sparked one of the most successful runs of his career. Cash walked into the gates of Folsom as a fading and troubled country singer. But he emerged a music superstar who used his fame to advance the cause of prison reform.
Did you think that Johnny Cash had actually served time in prison? Let us know in the comments below.
Sources: Johnny Cash https://www.biography.com/musician/johnny-cash Johnny Cash was arrested seven times – Here's Why https://www.cheatsheet.com/entertainment/johnny-cash-was-arrested-7-times-heres-why.html/ At Folsom prison, Johnny Cash found his cause https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/at-folsom-prison-johnny-cash-found-his-cause/2018/05/28/740124ca-4f03-11e8-84a0-458a1aa9ac0a_story.html Johnny Cash prison: Did Johnny Cash ever go to prison? Truth behind Man in Black https://www.express.co.uk/entertainment/music/1396051/Johnny-Cash-prison-did-Johnny-Cash-ever-go-to-prison-man-in-black-evg Johnny Cash: 10 Things You Might Not Know About the Country Icon https://www.biography.com/news/johnny-cash-10-interesting-facts
Natalie earned her Bachelors degree in Journalism from the University of Kansas, and has worked in television and radio during her career. When she was a 19-year-old sophomore at KU, she got her first on-air job as a sports reporter for a CBS-TV affiliate. In 2013, she was sentenced to 30 years in prison for the possession and production of marijuana. She was released in 2017. We've kept her last name off of our website so that she does not experience any professional hardship for her contributions.
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