How Johnny Cash Tried To Save A Former Convict With God And Nashville | Nashville Public Radio

How Johnny Cash Tried To Save A Former Convict With God And Nashville

Jun 29, 2018

It’s a January morning in 1968. There are 1,000 convicts in mess hall #2 at Folsom Prison. They’re hooting, hollering, clapping, pounding fists on metal tables.

The object of their excitement is Johnny Cash. He’s onstage under the harsh fluorescent lights, standing tall behind a nicotine veil of smoke. Down in the front row, there’s an inmate with a chiseled face and dark pompadour piled high, sucking on a Pall Mall. He's California state prisoner A597959C — just another face in the crowd.

That’s about to change.

Cash announces his final number, a song called Greystone Chapel, a driving, three-chord ode to the granite house of worship within Folsom Prison.

"It was written by a man right here in Folsom Prison," Cash says. "This song is written by our friend Glen Sherley. Hope we do your song justice, Glen."

Glen Sherley, in the front row, has no idea that this is going to happen.

“Glen jumped out of his seat and looked like his eyes were going to bulge out of his head,” says former reporter Gene Beley, who was covering the show. “I thought, ‘I just saw the happiest man alive.’”

This moment sparked a union between Cash and Sherley that affected both men profoundly. Fifty years ago, they were fighting their respective demons, both looking for salvation. Whether either of them found it — whether this meeting was a good thing or a bad thing — is hard to say.

Two Men Searching For Meaning

Glen Sherley was born in Oklahoma in 1936, when the Great Depression was in full swing. His family were hard-working farm laborers who moved to central California in search of fieldwork.

By the late 1950s, Sherley was repeatedly in trouble with the law. His crimes were desperate, poorly planned and usually fueled by booze. He robbed a man of a cash roll that turned out to be singles. He held up an ice cream company with a toy gun. He got $28.

By the time he was in his late 30s, armed robbery convictions had earned Sherley the grand tour of California penitentiaries: San Quentin, Soledad, Chino, Vacaville, Folsom. In and out. It became a lifestyle.

“The hardest thing for me to admit to myself was the fact that I was in prison because I wanted to be in prison,” admitted Sherley in a 1971 interview. “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.”

That left a lot of time to kill.

“You got to do something in prison or go insane,” he continued. “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.”

For Sherley, the antidote to insanity was songwriting. He was a shade tree guitar picker and a country music fan (George Jones was a favorite. He developed his skills on the inside.

He wrote what he knew about: simple songs with stark, raw lyrics of life behind bars, like "Greystone Chapel":

Inside the walls of prison my body may be
But my Lord has set my soul free
There's a greystone 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 saved the souls of many lost men

In his brief periods of freedom, Sherley married and fathered a son, Bruce, and a daughter, Ronda. Sherley’s family, including brothers, sisters and his mother, were a loyal crew, visiting him whenever they could. They’d deliver blank reels of tape, and he’d hand over his latest batch of recordings.  

All those tapes were probably destined for a cardboard box in a basement somewhere, but one song got into the hands of the only man who might’ve really cared: Johnny Cash.

Despite the image he pushed, and his 1957 hit "Folsom Prison Blues," Cash was never stuck in Folsom, or any other prison for that matter. But by the mid-‘60s, he was locked into a serious drug habit. His behavior was erratic, his career was flagging.

“He needed a hit, and he needed a moment,” says Grammy award-winning musician and country music historian Marty Stuart.

“Nashville had pretty much written him off, but there was a wildcard producer named Bob Johnston who’d been working with Bob Dylan, and John liked [Johnston] ‘cause he was a wild card.”

For years, Cash had pushed the idea of a live prison album to Columbia Records, but his label wasn’t interested. Now, with Johnston’s backing, the Folsom gig got a green light.

Folsom Prison Blues

The night before the show, Cash was paid a visit by a friend, Reverend Floyd Gressett. The reverend often brought the Good Word to the men in Folsom, and a fellow convict of Sherley’s had given Gressett the tape of Greystone Chapel.

Reporter Gene Beley was there for the rehearsal. Cash commandeered his recorder.

“We put that little demo tape on there and [Johnny] says, ‘I want to record it!” Beley recalls. “I stood over him while he copied the lyrics down.”

Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison became a crossover hit among country, pop and rock fans, with "Greystone Chapel" on it. The album solidified the singer’s image as the voice of the common man, the real deal.

“The Folsom Prison thing probably did save his career,” says pedal steel guitar legend Lloyd Green, a fixture on the Nashville studio scene since the late ‘50s.

“[Cash] became this bigger-than-life creation with his dark clothes and the dark savior thing he had decided to adopt, which was kind of always a little strange to me and a lot of other people in the business,” says Green. “It was that messianic complex thing kicking into high gear.”

When Cash and his entourage drove out of Folsom that day, Glen Sherley went back to his cell. But his savior did not forget him.

The men had bonded backstage after the concert. Both saw elements of themselves in each other. Prison reform had long been a cause for Cash. He believed a man could be redeemed; all he needed was a chance. Cash was in the process of saving himself. Now, with the help of God and Nashville, he was determined to save Glen Sherley.

Ronda Sherley keeps this photo of her brother and father after Glen was released from prison.
Credit Peter Gilstrap / Courtesy of Ronda Sherley

Sherley Moves To Music City

In ‘69, Cash helped to get Sherley moved to the state prison at Vacaville, a minimum-security facility. Glen kept writing and recording, and Cash continued to push Sherley’s music in Nashville.

In 1970, with Cash’s help Sherley landed a contract — while still locked up — with Nashville’s Mega record label.

The next year he recorded an album live in prison with a group of first-call Nashville session players backing him up. Lloyd Green played pedal steel at Vacaville that day.

“I remember we got through with the show and Glen was literally soaking wet from top to bottom,” Green says. “He was so concerned about doing a good job for his friends in prison. He was really treated as a hero that day, and he later told me that that was the greatest day of his life.”

When Cash appeared a few weeks later on the popular television show This Is Your Life, there was a surprise message from Sherley on tape.

When it begins, Johnny’s jaw drops. There’s Sherley, standing in front of the prison’s razor wire fence, making his television debut to millions. He’s charismatic and he’s humble. He’s authentic.

Hello John…I can honestly and truthfully say that you were the major turning point in my life...”

Watching the tape play out, Cash is blinking back the tears. It’s a real moment.

He commits himself to getting Sherley out of prison. He calls in favors. He has California governor Ronald Reagan pulling strings on the legal side, and Christian power icon Rev. Billy Graham on the prayer front. The press loves the story.

And it works.

In March of ’71, Glen Sherley is paroled. His album comes out a few weeks later and climbs the Billboard charts.

Cash moved Sherley to Nashville, gave him a spot on his touring show and signed him to a publishing deal with his company, House of Cash.

Sherley hit the road with Cash on a tour that brought him to the Los Angeles Forum in front of an audience of 17,000 people. Two of them were Bruce and Ronda.

“Except for in the living room, I didn't see him singing anywhere until I went to the Forum,” says Ronda, now a retired Tennessee State Trooper. “I mean, I didn't see him down at Billy Bob's, I didn't see him at the church. I saw him at the Forum. All those people. First time I'd seen John and June play. You know, that whole atmosphere…it was just—wow!”

'Swapping Jail Houses'

It was exciting and surreal. But Sherley soon found the transition to civilian life difficult.

Marty Stuart met Sherley in those days. “To get turned out of the California penal system and to be put into the world of hillbilly show business, there ain't a hell of a lot of difference in a lot of ways,” he says. “You just swapping jail houses.”

For years, Sherley had struggled with substance abuse. As his frustrations grew, those habits kicked in yet again.

When Sherley allegedly threatened to kill Cash’s bass player Marshall Grant with a butcher knife, it was the final straw for his patron.

Cash had wagered his faith, his name and his industry cache on this country music Pygmalion effort, but despite the best of intentions, this redemption thing just wasn’t going to work.

By all accounts, it was a wrenching decision, but Cash was forced to cut Sherley lose.

“At that time John was clean and sober,” Ronda says. “I'm sure he saw what [drugs were] going to do to Dad, and the path he was on, and he couldn't stop him. So the friendship dissolved. He didn't forget Dad, but he couldn't do anything to stop the downward spiral.”

Which begs the unanswerable question: Did Cash validate Sherley’s talent and bestow a few moments of transcendent glory on him, or trigger a downfall that might have been otherwise avoided? What if Cash had simply recorded a song by this convict and moved on?

“I've heard a lot of people say, do you think John should have taken more responsibility?” offers Ronda. “It wasn't his job to take responsibility. It was never John's job to guide my father through life.”

For most of the mid-’70s, Sherley was at loose ends. He did a lot of driving and a lot of drifting: Tennessee, Utah, California, and parts in between. Drugs and alcohol were involved. And always the Pall Malls.

He wound up feeding cattle in a stockyard in Central California, living in the cab of his truck, close to his brother Lib’s place. He couldn’t face returning to crime and prison, and he couldn’t acclimate to civilian life.

On the morning of May 11, 1978, standing on his brother’s front porch with an empty house behind him, Sherley put a gun to his head and pulled the trigger. He was 42 years old. Cash paid for the funeral.

Glen Sherley is buried on the outskirts of Bakersfield in a graveyard straight out of a country song: a few green acres bordered by dense pistachio groves, the tracks of the Burlington Northern railway, and miles of scrubland reaching to the Lost Hills that ripple in the heat.

It’s a place where peace and desolation coexist.

He lies next to his brother Lib beneath a flat gravestone that reads, “He searched for truth and found it in the Father.”

There’s a rusted flower cup embedded in the marker, but it looks like it’s been empty for a long time.