Johnny Cash became interested in Folsom State Prison, California, while serving in the United States Air Force Security Service. In 1953, his unit watched Crane Wilbur’s 1951 film Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison. The film inspired Cash to write a song that reflected his perception of prison life. The result was “Folsom Prison Blues”, Cash’s second single on Sun Records. The song became popular among inmates, who would write to Cash, requesting him to perform at their prisons.Cash’s first prison performance was at Huntsville State Prison in 1957. Satisfied by the favorable reception, he performed at several other prisons in the years leading up to the Folsom performance in 1968.
A few years after attaining commercial success from songs such as “I Walk the Line”, “Understand Your Man”, and “Ring of Fire”, Cash’s popularity waned. This was due in part to his increasing dependence on drugs. In 1967, Cash sought help for his escalating drug problems; by the end of the year, his drug use decreased and he sought to turn his career around. Concurrently, the country portion of Columbia Records underwent major personnel changes. Frank Jones and Don Law, who had produced several of Cash’s albums, were ousted in favor of Bob Johnston, who was known for his erratic behavior and willingness to disagree with studio executives. Cash saw this as an opportunity to pitch his idea of recording a live album at a prison; Johnston enthusiastically supported the concept.] Johnston called San Quentin State Prison and Folsom, with Folsom being the first to respond.