Gary Calvin gripped his bass guitar and dug into a low-end funky groove, eyes clenched as his fingers plucked a flurry of notes that reverberated off the room full of empty metal tables — drawing the sleepy gaze of an armed guard.
Maybe this particular music wasn’t historic, but the place of its conception certainly was. This was Dining Room Two at Folsom State Prison — the exact spot where the Man in Black on Jan. 13, 1968 introduced himself with the words, “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash,” and kicked off the most famous prison concert in history.
“He’s kind of a monument,” Calvin, a Folsom inmate said. “It doesn’t matter race, gender, whatever — everybody knows Johnny Cash.”
In advance of the 50th anniversary of Cash’s famous concert, which became a live album, prison officials invited a gaggle of reporters to tour the famous prison of Cash’s song. In reality, the prison yard was too far away to hear an actual "train a coming," but it still felt as if you might hear one rumbling by.
There were no plaques marking the dining room location where Cash played — but the space seemed to give off a musical aura — as if he might strap on his Gibson flattop at any second and break into his famous "Folsom Prison Blues."
The cruel irony was that hundreds of inmates who’ve served time in Folsom knew the lyrics of that song before they’d actually experienced the intimate longing it refers to.
“I heard it, and I never thought I’d end up here,” said inmate Andrew Clayton, who plays guitar in the prison’s band. “It happens.”
Cash showed up for the concert with his soon-to-be wife June Carter and his band the Tennessee Two along with Carl Perkins. Cash played two concerts that day, cherry-picking the best songs of both for his "At Folsom Prison" album. In the end, all but two songs came from the first concert.
His first choice venue to perform the concert was actually Marin County’s San Quentin State Prison, home to California’s death row. But calls from his manager to the prison went famously unreturned. So Cash instructed his manager to reach out to Folsom, which jumped at the chance.
The album went on to make the prison so popular that it later opened a museum, which sits just beyond the main gate where Cash posed for an iconic photo. Inside the museum, cases display old handcuffs and uniforms — although the majority of visitors from around the world come to see the tiny room of vintage pictures from the iconic visit or to buy a Cash T-shirt.
“People come in, that’s usually the first thing they ask is 'Where was Johnny Cash?'” said Jim Brown, a former Folsom prison guard who now oversees the museum. “A lot of them think he did time here and I kind of have to break their bubble and say ‘No, he was here for concerts.’”
There’s no one still at the prison who actually witnessed Cash’s concert, but it’s as if the show and its lore are now permanently wired into the facility — an electricity coursing through the generations of inmates who’ve since come and gone.
Prison officials took visiting reporters into an automotive training building where inmates were learning to work on cars. Inmates consulted manuals to rebuild engines or to learn how to change the rubber on a tire.
Even here among inmates of diverse backgrounds, Cash was a language everyone seemed to speak.
“I know he’s never done time here,” said inmate Patrick Conrad. “He’s iconic here.”
In another building where inmates learned the ins and outs of commercial home wiring, inmate Curtis Weary marveled at the thought a performer as famous as Cash would want to visit a prison and perform.
“So when you have entertainers that take the time out of they day and they life, that means a lot to me,” Weary said. “Knowing that Johnny Cash did that back in his days, that was a real good thing that he did.”
The dining room where Cash played looks pretty much like it did in 1968 when he performed for about 1,000 prisoners on a stage that’s long gone. A nearby room where hangings were once carried out served as Cash’s green room.
Barbed wire rings the dining room and an old mural-like painting was a relative of another mural that was visible in pictures from the concert but has been since taken down.
Calvin, the bass player, was among a group of the prison’s inmate musicians tapped to play in the dining room for visitors — though these days the group is more likely to play funk or jazz fusion than a country song. But Calvin counts Cash as an idol — if nothing else for the redemptive lessons of Cash’s own life, which landed the entertainer in jail several times.
“For me, he’s the example, you can go through this,” Calvin said. “You can go through this and you can come out and be successful and make a positive difference.”
Calvin and his bandmates laid into a dark funky dirge — a sound that bounced off the stone walls where a sign read “No warning shots fired.” Cash had stood in this same spot, playing to a roomful of men who found temporarily solace in a rare afternoon of music.
The prison planned to mark the anniversary with a concert by a Johnny Cash impersonator. But for many in Folsom, it was almost as if the real Johnny Cash was still headlining too.