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Rewinding the Country Charts: In 1968, Johnny Cash Returned to ‘Prison’

The legend's live version of "Folsom Prison Blues," first recorded in 1955, topped Hot Country Songs.

On July 20, 1968, the live recording of Johnny Cash’s self-written “Folsom Prison Blues” began a four-week reign atop Billboard‘s Hot Country Songs chart. The same week, parent LP Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison also spent its first of four weeks at No. 1 on Top Country Albums.

Cash had originally recorded the studio version of “Folsom” in 1955, and it climbed to No. 4 on Billboard‘s Most Played by Jockeys country chart in 1956. It was included on his 1957 debut album, With His Hot and Blue Guitar, produced by Sam Phillips, perhaps best known for discovering Elvis Presley. Guitar became the first LP released on Phillips’ Sun Records label.

Billboard’s Hot Country Songs Chart: July 20, 1968

Born out of Cash’s sympathy for the plight of prisoners, “Folsom” became a staple of his concerts, and he arranged to play two shows for inmates at Folsom State Prison (in Folsom, Calif.) on Jan. 13, 1968. Backed by his band, the Tennessee Three; wife June Carter Cash; and The Statler Brothers, Cash, then 36, opened both sets with “Folsom.”

The single went on to win the 1969 best country vocal performance, male, Grammy Award, while the 2005 film about Cash’s early life, I Walk the Line, starring Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon (as Cash and his wife), depicts the famed Folsom appearance.

Cash, an inductee of both the Country Music Hall of Fame (1980) and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (1992), died of complications from diabetes on Sept. 12, 2003, at age 71. Still, posthumous chart achievements would follow. On July 22, 2006, his American V: A Hundred Highways became his first solo No. 1 on Top Country Albums since The Man in Black in 1971. (Highwayman, with Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson, had led for a week in 1985.)

Cash added another No. 1 on Top Country Albums in April 2014 with Out Among the Stars, a collection of originally-shelved cuts recorded in the 1980s.