Johnny Cash recorded “At Folsom Prison” 50 years ago, on Jan. 13, 1968. The live album transcended the usual categories of popular music and ultimately sold more than three million copies. Cash’s willingness to play for a crowd of convicts fit with his outlaw image, but the venue choice reveals something crucial about his Christian beliefs.
Raised in Dyess, Ark., Cash became a Christian in 1944, when he was 12. Throughout his life, he showed an ardent desire to live according to the Gospels. But Cash was no paragon of Christian virtue. Stardom and the demands of his profession, especially the relentless travel, presented him with countless temptations. He could not resist many of them.
Cash’s struggle became particularly acute in the 1960s. He dealt with drug addiction and marital breakdown, and several brushes with the law only made his situation worse. While this drama hurt his career, it also gave Cash an acute sense of his vulnerabilities and enabled him to empathize with the prisoners in Folsom, Calif. As Robert Hilburn noted in his 2013 biography, “Cash knew what it was like to be in jail, to stand before his loved ones in handcuffs, and to walk through the seedy parts of town in search of drugs.”
Cash saw the Folsom concert as an opportunity to redeem himself.
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