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Why Did Johnny Cash Go to Prison?

Johnny Cash, born J.R. Cash, grew up in a poor farming family in Arkansas during the Great Depression. From an early age, he was working in the cotton fields and singing gospel music with his family. He was very close to his older brother Jack, who died in a tragic accident when Cash was 12 years old.

After high school, Cash enlisted in the Air Force and was stationed in Germany. It was during this time that he purchased his first guitar and began writing songs. When he returned to the United States, he married his first wife Vivian Liberto, and they moved to Memphis, Tennessee to pursue Cash’s music career.

In 1955, Cash auditioned for Sam Phillips’ Sun Records, home to Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis. He played his gospel-inspired country songs, but Phillips asked him to come back with something more commercial. Cash returned with “Hey Porter” and “Cry Cry Cry” which launched his career at Sun Records.

Over the next few years, Cash racked up hit songs like “Folsom Prison Blues”, “I Walk the Line”, and “Ring of Fire”. His early records blended country, rock, folk, and gospel influences into a unique sound. He became one of the biggest stars in country music history.

The Crimes That Sent Cash to Prison

So why did this rising music superstar end up going to prison at the peak of his early career? Cash was arrested twice in the 1960s, both times for possession of drugs.

First Arrest in 1965

Cash was arrested in El Paso, Texas in October 1965 after US customs agents and police found hundreds of pills and amphetamines in his guitar case. Amphetamines were popular in the music scene at the time, used to stay awake and energized through busy touring schedules. However, they were illegal without a prescription.

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Cash paid a $1,000 fine and was given a 30-day suspended sentence. This meant he avoided jail time as long as he stayed out of trouble.

Second Arrest and Prison Sentence in 1966

Unfortunately, Cash continued using amphetamines after his first arrest. His self-destructive behavior and drug use put significant strain on his marriage and family life.

In May 1965, Cash was arrested again, this time in Starkville, Mississippi for trespassing late at night into private property while on a drug-fueled binge. Since this violated the terms of his prior suspended sentence, the judge sentenced Cash to 60 days in jail.

He ended up serving 7 days in the Starkville County Jail and was bailed out by his father and manager. However, he was ordered to spend 3 nights in an El Paso jail that summer to complete his sentence.

Cash’s Time in Prison

Cash served a total of 7 nights in jail for his 1965-1966 arrests. However, he did get a memorable musical experience during his short time behind bars.

Starkville County Jail

Cash was initially devastated when he had to serve his 7-day sentence in the Starkville County Jail in Mississippi. At the time, he felt it was the worst thing that could have happened to his career.

However, the prison’s cold, stark conditions inspired Cash to write one of his most famous songs, “Folsom Prison Blues”. He had debuted the song in 1955 but reworked it after his jail experience in Mississippi.

El Paso Jail

Cash fulfilled the remainder of his 7-day sentence by serving 3 nights in an El Paso county jail in July 30-August 1, 1966.

While in the El Paso jail, he held his first ever prison concert for the inmates. This successful show was the inspiration for his critically acclaimed 1968 live album recorded at Folsom Prison.

DatePrisonReason
Oct 30 – Nov 5, 1965El Paso County JailPossession of amphetamines
May 24 – July 31, 1966Starkville County JailTrespassing while intoxicated
July 30 – Aug 1, 1966El Paso County JailCompleting 1965 sentence

How Prison Changed Cash

Being sentenced to jail time was a wake up call for Cash. It ultimately put him on the path to getting clean and revitalizing his career.

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Kicking His Drug Addiction

After being released from his short prison stint in 1966, Cash knew he had to make major changes in his life. He addressed his addiction and sought help to get clean for good.

Though he relapsed occasionally in the 1970s, Cash entered rehab in 1983 and stayed sober for the remainder of his life. Overcoming his substance abuse improved his physical and mental health as well as his relationships.

Recording At Folsom & The Landmark Album

In 1968, Cash proposed doing a live concert at Folsom State Prison in California that would be recorded. Remembering the positive impact of his performance in El Paso’s jail, he felt a prison album could help revitalize his career.

The Folsom Prison record became one of Cash’s biggest hits and a landmark live album. The enthusiastic inmate crowd and Cash’s raw, emotional performance made it a critical and commercial smash. It reached #1 on the country charts and #13 on the national album charts.

Connecting with Outlaws & Social Outcasts

Johnny Cash’s stint in jail also allowed him to connect with outsiders, outlaws, and social outcasts on a deeper level. Prison reform became an important cause for him.

He often advocated for prisoner rehabilitation programs and performed concerts in jails and prisons throughout his career. His music humanized incarcerated people and shared stories from their point of view.

Why Is Cash’s Time in Prison Significant?

Johnny Cash’s short time served in jail had an outsized impact on his career and legacy in several ways.

  • It inspired his classic songs “Folsom Prison Blues” and his legendary 1968 live album.
  • It pushed him to deal with his substance abuse and get sober.
  • It forged a bond between Cash and prison inmates that lasted his whole career.
  • It shaped his outlaw image and connected him to social outsiders as a voice for the underdog.

So while Cash only served 7 total days behind bars, it was a transformative experience. Seeing the inside of American prisons firsthand galvanized Cash’s music and advocacy for the rest of his influential career.

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Did Johnny Cash ever kill someone?

No, Johnny Cash never killed anyone. However, he did accidently start a forest fire in Tennessee once that killed over 50 endangered condors. The judge spared him jail time after paying retribution.

His lyrics sometimes described violent or criminal acts, contributing to his outlaw image. But he never took someone’s life.

How long was Johnny Cash in Folsom Prison?

Johnny Cash was never actually imprisoned at Folsom Prison. He just performed concerts there in 1968 and 1969. The idea for his famous live album came after doing a show in 1966 at an El Paso jail.

However, the gritty sound of the rowdy Folsom crowd energized Cash’s career and left a lasting mark on his music.

What drugs was Johnny Cash addicted to?

Johnny Cash struggled on and off with addiction to a variety of substances over his long career, especially amphetamines, barbiturates, and alcohol.

Amphetamines gave him energy to get through his busy touring schedule in the 1960s. But they also fueled his erratic behavior and the drug arrests that briefly put him in prison.

Did prison help Johnny Cash get clean?

Yes, Johnny Cash going to jail in 1965 and 1966 proved to be a wake up call for him to get treatment for his drug addiction. After a few relapses, he completed rehab in 1983 and lived the last 20 years of his life sober.

Prison inspired Cash to confront his substance abuse. Getting clean allowed him to revive his health, family, and music career.

Conclusion

Johnny Cash ranks as one of the most influential artists in country music history. Even though he only served 7 total days in jail, that brief prison time transformed Cash’s life and music.

The stark jail conditions inspired classics like “Folsom Prison Blues” and his legendary live album. It also motivated Cash to confront his addiction, connect with outcasts, and advocate for prison reform.

While a short sentence, those nights behind bars shaped the authentic outlaw image and rebellious spirit that made Johnny Cash a Nashville icon. His time in prison fueled his boundary-breaking career and outsized impact on American music.

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We are dedicated to exploring the intricacies of prison life and justice reform through firsthand experiences and expert insights.

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Welcome to ‘Prison Inside,’ a blog dedicated to shedding light on the often hidden and misunderstood world within correctional facilities. Through firsthand accounts, personal narratives, and insightful reflections, we delve into the lives of those who find themselves behind bars, offering a unique perspective on the challenges, triumphs, and transformations that unfold within the confines of these walls.

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