Country Music’s Greatest Prison Albums
Prison and country music go together like peanut butter and jelly. No wonder a slew of country music albums have been actually recorded within prison walls—some for convicts, some by convicts, and some using convicts. And we’re not just talking about novelty releases either, but some iconic albums that have helped define country music over the years. Here are some of them.
Presented in chronological order.
Charles Lee Guy III – “The Prisoner’s Dream”
That’s right, believe it or not Johnny Cash wasn’t the first to release an album recorded at a prison (though he definitely released more of them than anyone else). That distinction falls to Charles Lee Guy III who was convicted of involuntary manslaughter in 1957 at the age of 16 and was sentenced to 1 to 10 years in a California lock up. While in prison, Guy sent an unsolicited demo to Capitol Records, and producer Ken Nelson thought it would be a unique project to record an album in prison. The Prisoner’s Dream was recorded in a prison auditorium with Joe Maphis accompanying Charles Lee Guy III on acoustic guitar. Most of the songs were covers about prison, but Spade Cooley (in prison himself for killing his wife), contributed the original “Cold Gray Bars.”
A review from Time Magazine in 1963 read, “The songs he has learned to sing there all reflect his sorry circumstance and among them is the latest composition of a prison chum, country music’s Spade Cooley [himself a wife killer]. Guy’s woeful voice and guitar accompaniment fit the spirit of his music, and in this remarkable album he has the power of a young white Leadbelly.”
Johnny Cash – “At Folsom Prison”
Sometimes overshadowed by Cash’s At San Quentin released a year later, At Folsom Prison is arguably the better work, and has the distinction of being the first of Cash’s now legendary collection of prison concert releases. Cash performed two shows at Folsom State Prison on January 13, 1968 with the help of Carl Perkins, June Carter, and the Tennessee Three. Fifteen tracks for the first show, and two from the second made the final cut.
Though Columbia Records put little investment in the album (Cash was seen as cold product at the time), the album became a big commercial success, hitting #1 on the country charts, and #15 on the pop charts. It eventually was certified triple platinum in 2003. The album’s single was the live version of “Folsom Prison Blues,” which became Cash’s first charting single of record since 1964. At Folsom Prison was the start of a big resurgence for The Man in Black.
Johnny Cash – “At San Quentin”
The quintessential prison album, and the most commercially successful prison album of all time, At San Quentin not only became #1 in country, but #1 in pop as well. And let’s all appreciate that Johnny Cash pulled off this feat during the height of the counterculture revolution in America when country music was seen as old and crusty by many. It also launched a #1 single “A Boy Named Sue” (written by Shel Silverstein), which also hit #2 on the pop charts. The album (along with At Folsom Prison) is given credit for revitalizing Johnny Cash’s sagging career.
At San Quentin was recorded on February 24, 1969, and released on June 4. The album was certified gold two months later, was certified double platinum in 1986, and triple platinum in 2003. The concert was also the scene of Cash’s now famous bird flipping photo.
Mack Vickery – “Live! at the Alabama Women’s Prison”
Mack Vickery was a songwriter who was once signed to Sun Records, and wrote songs recorded by Johnny Cash, George Jones, Waylon Jennings, Johnny Paycheck, John Anderson, and many more. He also regularly wrote and performed under other names, including Vick Vickers and Atlanta James.
Inspired by Johnny Cash’s success with prison albums, Vickery recorded Live! at the Alabama Women’s Prison—more specifically the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women in Wetumpka, Alabama. Like Cash, Vickery chose songs that fit the setting, and the cheers of the inmates are a signature part of the recording.
Glen Sherley – “Glen Sherley” (& “Glen Sherley Live at Vacaville, California”)
“The night before I was going to record at Folsom prison, I got to the motel and a preacher friend of mine brought me a tape of a song called ‘Greystone Chapel,'” Johnny Cash explained to Life Magazine in 1994. “He said a convict had written it about the chapel at Folsom. I listened to it one time and I said, ‘I’ve got to do this in the show tomorrow.’ So I stayed up and learned it, and the next day the preacher had him in the front row.”
That’s not only the story behind Cash’s ‘Greystone Chapel,’ but how convict Glen Sherley became a country music songwriting star while still behind bars. Serving time in Folsom for armed robbery, he became friends with Cash, who was there to greet Sherley when he was released. Sherley also met Spade Cooley while in prison, who was serving a life sentence for murder, and Eddy Arnold recorded Sherley’s song “Portrait of My Woman.”
Through this success, Glen Sherley was able to record a live prison album in 1971 for Mega Records, and it’s now considered a country music classic. Bear Family Records re-released the album years later as Glen Sherley Live at Vacaville, California. Sherley also performed with Cash, Linda Ronstadt and Roy Clark on the documentary Flower Out of Place that was also featured in the album A Concert Behind Prison Walls from 2003, but Sherley’s contributions were edited out of later versions.
Johnny Cash – PÃ¥ Ã–sterÃ¥ker
Not nearly as well known as Johnny Cash’s other prison albums, PÃ¥ Ã–sterÃ¥ker was recorded at Ã–sterÃ¥ker Prison in Sweden on October 3, 1972. It was not nearly the critical or commercial success of his previous two prison albums, and has been criticized for including a fairly weak song selection.
One bright spot of the album is the inclusion of two versions of the well-known Kris Kristofferson songs “Me & Bobby McGee” and “Help Me Make It Through The Night.”
PÃ¥ Ã–sterÃ¥ker might be a better conversation piece or collectors item, but still has its moments.
Freddy Fender – “Recorded Inside Louisiana State Prison”
In May of 1960, Freddy Fender was arrested for marijuana possession in Baton Rouge, Louisiana and spent three years incarcerated at the Angola Prison Farm. At some point in 1962, this album was recorded, though unlike other prison albums, there’s no live audience. The production value is low, and the record wasn’t released until 13 years after it was recorded when Freddy’s song “Before The Next Teardrop Falls” became a big hit.
Fender was eventually pardoned by Louisiana Governor and former country music performer and songwriter Jimmie Davis. Recorded Inside Louisiana State Prison got lost between Fender’s major releases of the time, but remains an interesting time capsule into the early music of Fender’s career.
Sonny James – “In Prison, In Person”
One of the most rare prison albums to find, In Prison, In Person is also one of the most unique. Instead of Sonny James bringing his own band to perform at the Tennessee State Prison outside of Nashville, he used prison-supplied inmates, and not just petty criminals. Sitting in with Sonny James were two convicted murderers and three rapists who were serving life sentences, as well as five other convicts serving a total of 118 years. Prisoners even were used to take the photos for the album’s cover and insert. Since the law excluded Sonny from paying the inmates royalties for their efforts, he instead upgraded the prison’s stock of guitars, amplifiers, and other instruments for the prison population.
“It’s not unusual for an artist to visit a prison,” James told People magazine in April of 1977. “But it was to my knowledge the first time this kind of thing has been undertaken, and I’ve never enjoyed anything more. We didn’t strive for perfection. We didn’t do it for the critics. It is, as they say, ‘listenable,’ though what makes this LP unique and pleasurable is that it’s real.”
Johnny Cash, Linda Ronstadt, Roy Clark – A Concert Behind Prison Walls
Originally recorded in 1976 as part of a documentary called Flower Out of Place that featured Johnny Cash, the Tennessee Three, Roy Clark, Linda Ronstadt, and comedian Foster Brooks performing at the Tennessee State Prison, it wasn’t released to the public in DVD and CD form until 2003 and became Johnny Cash’s 54th album. Earlier VHS forms of the concert are also floating out there.
Glen Sherley (see above) originally hosted the performance, and it was aired on national television, but for some reason Sherley’s participation was completely edited out of subsequent versions of the concert. A much different vibe from Cash’s earlier prison albums, since it was broadcast on television, the presentation feels a little more orchestrated instead of organic. Nonetheless, it is a worthy addition to Johnny Cash’s prison concert catalog.
The Johnny Paycheck Prison Album w/ Merle Haggard (unreleased)
During Johnny Paycheck’s famous incarceration at the Chillocothe Correctional Institution, his manager and producer at the time, Billy Don Burns, arranged to produce a prison album for Paycheck. The production for the project was massive, and included over 50 people helping to put it on, flying Merle Haggard on a Leer Jet to Ohio between gigs so he and his band could participate, and four beta max cameras to record the concert in video form.
Unfortunately legal snags ensured that the album (and video) would never see the light of day. As for what happened to the tapes and master of the recording, “They were actually given to “Cowboy” Jack Clement at some point in time, and unfortunately the masters burned when his house burned down,” says Aaron Rodgers, a friend of Billy Don Burns. Possibly one of the greatest prison records in country music history is one that will never be heard.
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Steve Earle – “Live At Cold Creek Correctional Facility” (1996) – Though never officially released as an album, this June 1996 concert recorded at the Cold Creek Prison in Tennessee was aired on MTV, and released in DVD form in 2013. Earle performed the concert as part of a parole agreement for a drug offense. Bootleg versions of the audio exist, making it worth mentioning in the same breath of other country prison albums.
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David Allan Coe – “Penitentiary Blues” (1969) – Not a prison record per se (it wasn’t recorded in one), it was nonetheless inspired by Coe’s time behind bars. Coe also performed at numerous prison concerts throughout his career.
October 16, 2015 @ 9:05 am
I always wondered what ever happened to that Johnny Paycheck record. It kinda bums me out to hear it got destroyed.
December 31, 2021 @ 9:55 am
Its really hard to hear this, I’m wondering why backup copies weren’t made on such a large production. Such a loss.
October 16, 2015 @ 9:44 am
Does anyone think we’ll ever see any more albums recorded in concert in a prison? The last I can recall of a major artist even performing in one with the prisoners within eyesight, was Metallica for the St. Anger video. Other than a few metal or hip hop artists I can’t really see anyone else possessing the balls to even attempt it. I definitely can’t see any of the mainstream radio country artists of today willing to take a chance like that.
I think that speaks a lot to the vision that Johnny Cash had when he decided to record at Folsom Prison. It’s unfortunate for us that it will probably never be repeated.
October 16, 2015 @ 10:11 am
I think the biggest issue facing the idea today is insurance and bureaucracy. Back in the day, I think administrators saw it as a way to promote rehabilitation. Today, red tape keeps them from seeing anything but a hassle. I think these albums stopped getting made because it stopped being possible. All the effort that went out to make the Johnny Paycheck album, and it never saw the light of day. Now labels and financiers are unwilling to take the risk.
October 17, 2015 @ 7:34 am
I think Trig is right, and have done some volunteering in prisons. This much more about liability and, generally, a shift from rehabilitation to warehousing prisoners over the last 20 years. It is not about performers not having the cajones. I expect a lot of rap artists might do it for the publicity if they could. I know Michigan turned down Kid Rock, who wanted to record a concert at a women’s prison recently. Smaller artists are allowed, but usually as part of an established volunteer program or choirs performing as part of religious services and events. That is very different from bringing in a major artist and recording equipment. If it is going to cost in terms of extra security and upset the daily routine.
(As a related issue, most states severely cut education programs and drug rehab in jail in the 90s.)
October 16, 2015 @ 10:02 am
Where is the line between an inmate bettering himself / finding an honest avenue to make a living and profiting from his crime?
Our Lord implored us to visit those in prison, not to make folk heroes out of them…
October 16, 2015 @ 10:08 am
That’s a good question, but I think in only maybe two of these instances did that possibly occur, Charles Lee Guy III and Glen Sherley. In the first instance, I’m sure it was the record label who did most of the profiteering, and in the case of Glen Sherley, that was more about Johnny Cash picking him out from the crowd as opposed to him pursuing a music career behind bars. There’s also something to be said about the rehabilitation powers of music. That was what was behind Johnny Cash’s initial visits to prisons, before there were any albums behind it. In the case of Merle Haggard and Glen Sherley, it worked. Cash also helped David Allan Coe and Billy Don Burns at different times.
October 16, 2015 @ 10:15 am
Although Cash was a petty criminal, liked to play up his fake prison bonafides, and never did hard time, he certainly did profit from the false persona of the tough-guy, hardened criminal, while guys like Haggard and Coe actually walked the walk…
October 16, 2015 @ 10:32 am
Cash liked to play up that he had empathy for humans in all places in their life. Haggard was a reformed man who had a tough adolescence. Coe is just an idiot.
October 17, 2015 @ 7:39 am
Among the honorable mentions, Steve Earle’s MTV concert had a very strong anti-drug message, and he has used his past as a way to encourage others to get clean. It is posted here (though folks should buy it and other music you find on vimeo and youtube):
The energy in the concert is amazing… and would be surprised if he didn’t know a few of the men in the seats from his time on the streets.
October 19, 2015 @ 9:04 pm
I remember watching it when it first aired. I was always a huge Earle fan, and was super excited when I Feel Alright came out, which was the record he was pushing at the time of this taping. It’s still one of the best albums front to back in his catalog.
October 20, 2015 @ 4:17 am
I agree, though I would give El Corazon and The Mountain a slight edge, his 90s post jail albums are his best, from Train to Transcendental Blues.
October 16, 2015 @ 10:04 am
How could “Folsom” be overshadowed by “San Quentin?” You’re the first person I’ve ever heard imply that Trig. Folsom is obviously the better work. Although I have San Quentin on vinyl and Folsom on CD.
October 16, 2015 @ 10:40 am
What difference does it make what format you have a given album on? Is vinyl the epitome of your love for a given work or something? 😛
October 20, 2015 @ 6:47 am
Not exactly, but consider this:
If I were to watch Terminator 2 on Blu-ray, It would not be an authentic viewing experience; I would not be watching it the way it was watched when it was first watched (on VHS)
So buying a classic album that was originally released on vinyl, on vinyl, is more authentic.
October 20, 2015 @ 11:56 am
I understand what you’re trying to get at, but that example is less than ideal. Terminator 2: Judgement Day was shot on film and released theatrically. As such, VHS isn’t even close to being an “authentic” representation of the film. The format doesn’t have the capability to reproduce a given film in its original resolution, not to mention that pan and scan was the norm of that era (a process by which a theatrical widescreen image is cropped to fit a television screen). Even direct-to-video films that were released on VHS weren’t properly represented due to the limitations of the format. Difference in film stock notwithstanding, an average 35mm film print has the equivalent resolution of 4,000 horizontal lines of pixels, or 4K as it’s known in the mainstream. Blu-ray is 1080p, so even that is barely half the resolution of the original film print. VHS works out to less than 480p on average, and given that the whole image isn’t even there, how’s it “authentic”? Digitizing a movie isn’t the same as digitizing an album, and unless you have a projector Blu-ray is currently the way to go for the most authentic film experience at home (until 4K completely takes over).
October 16, 2015 @ 3:12 pm
During their era, “San Quentin” significantly outsold “Folsom,” probably because San Quentin had a major hit in “Boy Named Sue” that had massive crossover success. Maybe “overshadow” was too strong of a word, but San Quentin was definitely the stronger of the two commercially.
October 18, 2015 @ 7:02 am
Trig had a valid point there–or at least it’s not something to challenge.
“A Boy Named Sue” was easily the biggest hit of Johnny Cash’s career.
People may not have a sense now for how big it was, but it was played on pop and country stations and Cash was all over the place–on his own prime time network TV show, guesting on other shows, on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, etc.
October 16, 2015 @ 10:18 am
^Funny, I always thought Folsom was the more prominent of the two, although both are essential to any music collection in my opinion.
Although it’s not country, BB King at Cook County Jail is one heck of a prison album, too. There’s some classic dialog with the audience, and some of his best live work, too.
October 16, 2015 @ 10:20 am
There is a bunch of great blues prison albums. I was going to include them here, but there’s so many of them, I figured they deserved their own distinction at some point.
October 16, 2015 @ 10:19 am
DAC’s Penitentiary Blues is one of my favorite albums ever, even though it’s much more of a Blues album than Country. Cell #33 in particular is one of the most badass things ever recorded.
October 16, 2015 @ 11:16 am
This article rekindles my curiosity as to why Hank III has always preceeded his live cover of Cocaine Blues with “1969 with the man in black at Folsom Prison, like we always do! Look out for those Cocaine Blues!”
Does anyone know wether he even went back to Folsom Prison that year? Did he play the song during the 1969 show at San Quentin?
I always sort of assumed Hank III just didn’t know when the Folsom concert was recorded and that no one ever set him right, but my assumption could be wrong.
October 16, 2015 @ 4:15 pm
Marshall Chapman – It’s About Time – Recorded Live at the Tennessee Stat Prison for Women
Great album by underrated outlaw!
October 16, 2015 @ 8:04 pm
I have that record too.
October 16, 2015 @ 7:25 pm
I got 2 of Cash’s at Folsom Prison and San Quentin. Very good cd’s.
October 16, 2015 @ 8:30 pm
Most of today’s “country” “music” “singers” should be behind bars.
October 16, 2015 @ 11:25 pm
Mark Collie – Alive at Brushy Mountain i s a very good one.
October 17, 2015 @ 11:46 am
Awesome!!! Never heard this before!! Thank you for posting this!!
October 19, 2015 @ 5:43 pm
Check it out here https://paulkerr.wordpress.com/2013/07/04/mark-collie-his-reckless-companions-alive-at-brushy-mountain-state-penitentiary/
October 18, 2015 @ 7:16 pm
One of the Kelly Willis track did well in my regular rotation and I love the gospel track Ride This Train. It took Mark from 2001 to 2012 to get it off the shelf 3 years after that prison closed. was in contact with Mark during the release and met him in October 2014 at IBMA.
October 18, 2015 @ 11:21 am
That Coe album is one of the greatest albums I’ve ever heard. Raw and powerful but with purpose. It’s Coe’s own fault that his music doesn’t get the respect it deserves.
October 18, 2015 @ 10:04 pm
why no san quentin’s first lady? It’s waaay better than for example the dissapointing freddy fender release
October 19, 2015 @ 9:13 pm
Great post! I’ve actually been researching the theme of prison in country music for a few years now. I’ve got a lot of these fantastic records! The Freddy Fender one is superb.
My book about Texas prison bands will be out next year with the History Press and deals with a lot of country music at the Texas prisons. Lots of amazing stories, including how one inmate sold a bunch of songs to Jimmie Rodgers after meeting him in 1925, hence the prison song/country music development. Not to mention all
-girl western swing bands, a Peabody Award winning radio show, murderous fiddling champions, and more! The prison theme is one of the most fascinating offshoots of country music, at least for me.
October 19, 2015 @ 9:17 pm
Sounds like a really interesting book Caroline. Please keep us in the loop about it.
May 2, 2016 @ 5:01 am
The book is out today! Interesting tie-ins with country music history abound. It’s available on Amazon and other major retailers.
Blake Shelton Sues Tabloid; Country’s Greatest Prison Albums; Rest in Peace, John Jennings | Country California
October 20, 2015 @ 10:30 am
[…] Country Music listed country music”™s greatest prison albums, several of which are not by men named Johnny […]
October 20, 2015 @ 12:06 pm
There are random clips of the Paycheck prison album from what looks like a VHS recording on Youtube.
I believe there is also an interview up.
March 21, 2016 @ 9:46 am
Are we completely certain that Johnny and Hag’s album is gone? I know that story about the masters was fairly straightforward, but were no copies of anything made? Commenter J Wallace says there are clips on YouTube, so presumably something was transferred somewhere. It may not necessarily be the best quality and would likely never be released anyway, but I’m still curious. Hag and Paycheck are two of my all-time favorites and that album would have likely been a great time. Of course, 80% of Paycheck’s mainstream material isn’t even in print these days, so hoping for some mythical incarceration album to see the light of day given the obstacles is a pipe dream at best before one even considers what happened to the tapes.
By the way, Trigger, do you have any sources for that album that shed a little light on the rest of the story? As in why the album went unreleased, what the original motivation behind it was, opinions from Hag/Paycheck on it, probable title, etc. Anything? Or is your guess as good as mine?
March 21, 2016 @ 12:19 pm
Here’s what appears to be one of those videos: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H7gTivquZig. Somebody has a copy of this somewhere.
EDIT: Just realized the exact same clip was posted above (I found this one with Google).
March 21, 2016 @ 3:25 pm
Aaron Rodgers was the guy I spoke to about it. I interviewed him about Billy Don Burns and we talked about it. There’s was no more information from the interview than what I posted here. My guess is talking to Billy Don Burns directly might be a good source. I may do a more in-depth story about it in the future.
March 21, 2016 @ 7:19 pm
Thanks for the response. If you’re feeling up to it, we could surely use some more documentation of the event. Who knows, an informative article could spur enough interest to have those copies that were sourced for the YouTube videos tracked down and possibly released. Unlikely, but stranger things have happened.
I did a bit of digging and came up with an article written a few years ago that details what appears to ostensibly be the whole story, or at least as much as I’ve seen: https://takecountryback.wordpress.com/2007/07/05/paycheck-the-album-that-never-was/. However, it’s somewhat poorly written, with quite a few syntactical and punctuational errors, so I took the whole thing with a grain of salt (funny how something as simple as grammatical correctness can cast doubt onto a story).
I also found a rather informative biography of him that mentions the album in passing, as well as some other projects that Paycheck was apparently working on that never saw the light of day: http://www.alancackett.com/johnny-paycheck-biography. That biography also includes the heartbreaking anecdote that Paycheck’s last recorded performance for a cover of his seminal song “Old Violin” Daryle Singletary’s occurred just weeks before he died, while bedridden.
The sheer amount of unreleased and out-of-print Paycheck material makes the loss of the prison album that much harder to swallow. It’s essentially just another tick on the list of unfortunate realities of Paycheck’s career and legacy since his death.