This was originally published Jan. 23, 2018.
Fifty years ago this month, Johnny Cash performed at Folsom Prison to an audience of 1,000 convicts. The recording of the show, "Live at Folsom Prison," went on to become a landmark album.
It solidified Cash’s image as a champion of the downtrodden, revitalized his career and forever linked him with those behind bars.
But the singer’s connection with Folsom went far beyond a triple platinum release. It was there that he met a jailhouse songwriter and career criminal named Glen Sherley. Their friendship would have a profound effect on both men.
It all begins on the morning of Jan. 18, 1968. Johnny Cash is onstage under the raw fluorescent lights in mess hall #2 at Folsom Prison. Cash is giving the convicts what they want, running through numbers like "Folsom Prison Blues", "Dark As a Dungeon," "I Still Miss Someone," "Send a Picture of Mother."
Standing tall up there, dressed in black, sweat rolling down his cheek, Cash squints through the choking haze of cigarette smoke at a prisoner in the front row with a chiseled face, a high pompadour, and a Pall Mall dangling from his mouth.
This is Glen Sherley, California state convict A-59795C, a repeat offender doing a life sentence for armed robbery. He has no idea what’s about to happen, no idea his life is about to change forever.
From the stage, Cash pauses to introduce the next and final song.
“This next song was written by a man right here in Folsom Prison, and last night was the first time I’ve ever sung this song. Anyway, this song was written by our friend Glen Sherley.”
The room erupts, Sherley’s inmate brothers clapping, whistling and hooting for their man as he beams in shock and wonder. Cash kicks the band into "Greystone Chapel."
Inside the walls of prison, my body may be
But my Lord has set my heart free
There’s a grey stone chapel here at Folsom
A house of worship in this den of sin
You wouldn’t think that God had a place here at Folsom
But He’s saved the soul of many lost men
Cash played two sets at Folsom that day and closed both with Sherley’s raw anthem to the small, sacred building.
“If you took the Glen Sherley component out of that record there would be a big hole,” says country musician Marty Stuart. He played with Cash in the ‘80s, and Johnny introduced him to Sherley many years ago. “To me that was kind of the heart of that record. That was a great gesture, but it was also a great song and a deserving song.”
So how did this guy who’d spent most of his adult life buried in the toughest prisons California had to offer — Chino, Soledad, San Quentin and Folsom — write a song that ended up on one of the most revered and powerful albums ever?
It all began with a behind-bars demo.
Sherley was friendly with the prison DJ, convicted killer Earl Green. Green loved Johnny Cash, and convinced Glen to write something in Cash’s style. Thus was born "Greystone Chapel." Green recorded Sherley’s song, and — by all accounts without his knowledge — gave the tape to the Rev. Floyd Gressett, a traveling chaplain who brought the Good Word to the incarcerated. He also had a church in Ventura where Cash, who lived in nearby Casitas Springs, was known to darken the door on Sunday mornings.
The evening before the Folsom show, Cash was rehearsing in a Sacramento hotel when the Rev. Floyd dropped by with that tape straight from the big house. Cash loved what he heard, and performed the song the next morning onstage at the prison.
Sherley’s song was a crowd pleaser. It put the spotlight on a humble prisoner, and would be a savvy promo for the release.
Most artists would have left it at that and moved on.
But Johnny Cash was not most artists.
By 1968, he was getting a handle on his years of drug and alcohol abuse, resurrecting his career, and renewing his deep faith in the Lord. When he met Glen Sherley, Cash was meeting a kindred spirit, a darker version of himself, had he made slightly different life choices.
“Oh, I think it was just a country boy thing, just a Southern boy thing,” says Marty Stuart. “You see a buddy down in the ditch, you stick out your hand. They helped each other, I think they shored each other up. I think it was the best of intentions.”
Nashville pedal steel master Lloyd Green, who recorded with both Sherley and Cash, has a slightly different take on the relationship.
“It was that messianic complex thing kicking into high gear,” he says. “'I'm going to save this guy, and in the process save myself.’ [Cash] looked at it like, I've been redeemed because I was special. He really felt he was a special man. And he said it, you know, more than once. He might have been.”
Cash was finding salvation. Now, with the help of God and Nashville, he was going to save Glen Sherley, too.
But what brought Sherley to this point?
“I was born in state of Oklahoma in '36. I think it was the latter part of '38 when the whole family moved to California,” he said in a 1971 interview with CBS News. “If you read Steinbeck's book the 'Grapes of Wrath' it kind of fits that, you know? Mattresses on the car, buckets on the side, stopping getting water. Got to California, I started school.”
School didn’t go so well. In his teens, Sherley started getting in trouble with the law. Over the years, he developed lifelong drug and alcohol addictions. Despite having a dedicated wife and two young children, by 1960 he would be in and out of prison for most of the next decade. So, what went wrong?
“I've asked myself that a lot of times,” says his daughter, Ronda Sherley, a retired Tennessee state trooper living in Nashville. “Because if you knew my grandmother and his brothers and sisters, they were all hardworking people, they were all very responsible, very honest people. But I guess that's something you don't really figure out. That was just something in him.”
In that 1971 interview, Sherley shed some light on his criminal motivation.
“What turned me to committing robberies, I think, well, the hardest thing for me to admit about five years ago to myself was the fact that I was in prison because I wanted to be in prison. …You're fed and you’re housed and you’re clothed and you don't have to worry about where your next meal is coming from. There's no responsibility there.”
Sherley was not a criminal mastermind. He’d get loaded and impulsive, and once robbed a Burbank ice cream company of $28 using a toy gun.
In his brief moments of civilian life, he’d listen to the radio — George Jones was a favorite — and strum a few chords on a beat-up six string.
“I can remember him playing guitar and singing in the living room when we were going to bed,” says Ronda. “But he would be in and out, in and out [of prison] so I don't have a whole lot of memories as a child of him being there.”
“You got to do something in prison or go insane,” said Glen in ‘71. “You can do it gambling, you can do it hustling, you can do it shooting narcotics or taking pills, but you've got to have something going to let you face that next day.”
What Sherley did was write songs.
After the Folsom performance, the "Man In Black" was on a mission to set Sherley free. He stepped in with connections that included Gov. Ronald Reagan and the Rev. Billy Graham, and got Sherley transferred to the minimum-security prison at Vacaville. Cash also landed him a record deal.
Lloyd Green was one of the session players imported from Tennessee to back up Sherley on his self-named album, recorded live in Vacaville while he was still doing time.
“Glen was the most humble, nicest guy in the world,” recalls Green. “He was just so grateful, you know? It was a major day, as it turned out, it was a major event in his life.
“Glen was treated as the hero by his friends in prison and it was a wonderful thing to see,” Green continues. “It was a very emotional thing for me because I just I got caught up in it, too. and I thought, ‘Wow, this is terrible this man spent a large portion of his adult life in prison.’ ”
In March 1971 Glen Sherley was paroled. His record was released a few weeks later and climbed up the Billboard country charts to #63 — not a hit, but nothing to be ashamed of. Cash moved him to Nashville, gave him a spot on his road show and signed him to a publishing deal.
But after about a year and a half of traveling and performing with Cash, including a gig at the Los Angeles Forum in front of a crowd of 17,000 people, things started going south for Sherley.
“This is a big statement, but to get turned out of the California penal system and to be put into the world of hillbilly show business, good ol’ boy show business, there ain't a hell of a lot of difference in a lot of ways,” says Marty Stuart. “You just swapping jailhouses.”
“He knew how to be in prison,” Ronda says. “He knew how to be someone in prison. He didn't know how to be Glen Sherley out here.”
Ultimately, he couldn’t play the Nashville game, couldn’t adjust to life beyond a cell. Sherley’s addictions kicked in, his behavior became unpredictable and dangerous, and when he threatened a band member, that was the last straw.
Though it crushed him, Cash finally had to cut his friend loose.
For the next several years, Sherley drifted and drugged. His only goal was to stay out of prison. By 1978 — just six years after his album was released — he was living in the cab of a truck on a cattle farm near Salinas. In May of that year, he took his own life at the age of 42.
“I've heard a lot of people say, 'Well, do you think John [Cash] should have taken more responsibility?' ” says Ronda Sherley. “He did his job. He gave him a job, he gave him a home. He was his friend. He gave him advice, but Dad was a grown man and chose to take it or not. So it was never John's job to guide my father through life.”
She still listens to her father’s music, a long gone voice that continues to speak to her.
“The words, the way he writes … you think of somebody who's in prison, you think, oh he's a bad person,” says Ronda. “But somebody who's a bad person couldn’t put those words together. They couldn't feel what it takes to put those words together.”
In the last five decades, the Johnny Cash "Live at Folsom Prison" album has sold more than 3 million copies, and Johnny Cash is still probably the most recognized name in country music.
And Glen Sherley? Now you know who he is, too.
More of Peter Gilstrap's reporting on Glen Sherley will be featured as part of a music documentary series, presented by KCRW, this spring.