The night before Johnny Cash’s legendary Jan. 13, 1968 appearance at Folsom Prison, a prison minister handed him a recording of inmate Glen Sherley’s song inspired by the penitentiary’s imposing granite chapel.
"John says, 'Well, anybody got a tape recorder?' So I raised my hand," recalls Gene Beley, then a young reporter for the Ventura Star Free Press, who was there at the time. "And we put this little demo tape on there and it was 'Greystone Chapel' by Glen Sherley. And he says, 'I want to record it.'"
Beley says Cash copied down the lyrics in his hotel room and started working on the song. The reporter later caught the rehearsal on tape. (If you listen to the audio at the top of this story, you can hear Cash and his band practice the new song. This tape has never been heard before by the public.)
The next morning -- 50 years ago this week -- Cash and his entourage headed out to record what would become one of the most influential albums of the twentieth century, Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison.
Beley says Cash received a rapturous welcome at the penitentiary, located northeast of Sacramento. "All the guys screaming and hollering and hootin' and whistlin," Beley says. "I had never been to another show that had those kind of reactions."
Glen Sherley had a front-row seat in the prison’s drab cafeteria for
the show. The convict was doing time for armed robbery. He had no idea that Cash had gotten hold of his song when Cash announced, “This song was written by our friend Glen Sherley. I hope we do your song justice, Glen.”
Starting in 1957, Cash performed many prison concerts over the years, including four dates at Folsom.
But the 1968 gig helped to relaunch the singer’s career, which was floundering at the time in large part due to his dependence on prescription pills.
It also boosted Cash’s ongoing campaign for prison reform. That’s an issue his daughter Tara Cash Schwoebel says her father had long held dear. "It really spoke to his rebellious side," Schwoebel says. "He had a passion for just standing up for these people who were locked up and treated so poorly."
Cash and Sherley hit it off. A life‐long Christian who believed strongly in redemption, Cash did a lot to get his new friend on the right path. In 1971, he lobbied successfully to get the handsome inmate paroled, and gave him a job as a performer with his band. He even helped Sherley cut his own album.
Sherley did his best to adjust to his new life on the outside. He joined Cash’s crusade for prison reform, even testifying alongside his mentor at a U.S. Senate subcommittee hearing on the issue in 1972.
He also got married, and adopted a son. Keith Sherley remembers his dad fondly. "My dad had a great laugh and a great smile," he says. "We did a lot of things together and he was fun."
And Cash’s drummer, WS “Fluke” Holland, says Sherley was a real gentleman on the road. "I don't know of anybody I've ever been around who was nicer than Glen Sherley," Holland says.
But Sherley found it hard to cope with being thrust under the spotlight after years in prison. Keith Sherley says his dad was battling drug addiction and wasn’t easy to live with. "There was a lot of domestic trouble between he and my mom," Keith Sherley says. "There was a lot of problems with being consistent; with being reliable."
The issues bled into his professional life. Schwoebel says the parolee's behavior became increasingly threatening and erratic. "And so my father realized that it was time to kind of break ties with him," she says.
Eventually, Cash kicked Sherley out of the band. His marriage ended and his life spiraled out of control. He wound up living with his brother in California and worked on a feedlot near Salinas. In 1978, he killed himself. He was 42.
Schwoebel says her father was devastated. "It was a wakeup call that he realized he couldn't save everybody," she says.
On the day Cash heard the tragic news, the singer drew a picture in his journal of a bird flying away from a prison cell window. Keith Sherley says he was shown the journal page by a Cash scholar.
"And beneath it, he wrote the caption, 'The Lord has set my soul free,'" Keith Sherley says, recalling that these are words from “Greystone Chapel,” the song that first brought the two men together. "I think John understood that released his soul, and that he was finally free from whatever demons that he had been dealing with."
With thanks to Gene Beley and Sony for providing access to and permission to use a few seconds of footage from Cash's as-yet-unreleased Jan 12, 1968 rehearsal tape.
For fans of the Man in Black, this is not to be missed: Acclaimed, California-based Cash tribute artist James Garner performs a concert in celebration of the 50th anniversary of Johnny Cash's historic 1968 session at Folsom at San Francisco's Palace of Fine Arts Theatre on Friday, Feb. 16. Tickets and information here.