Story Behind the Song: ‘Folsom Prison Blues’ by Johnny Cash
Songs about prisons and songs about trains were the core of Johnny Cash's music. One song combined the two.
That song would become as close to being a signature song as anything could possibly be for Cash. The song was "Folsom Prison Blues".
Johnny wrote the song while he was serving in the United States Air Force. He was inspired while watching the movie Inside the Walls Of Folsom Prison.
Cash recounted how he came up with the line "But I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die": "I sat with my pen in my hand, trying to think up the worst reason a person could have for killing another person, and that's what came to mind."
The song was recorded at the Sun Studio in Memphis, Tennessee on July 30, 1955. The producer was Sam Phillips, and the musicians were Cash (vocals, guitar), Luther Perkins (guitar), and Marshall Grant (bass).
Cash performed the song at Folsom Prison itself on January 13, 1968, and this version was eventually released on the At Folsom Prison album the same year. That opening song is more up-tempo than the Sun studio recording.
The live version released as a single went all the way to number one on the country charts. It would earn Cash a Grammy in 1969.