By Joel Francis
The Daily Record
Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary has held some notorious figures during its storied history. Former heavyweight champion Jack Johnson, Kansas City political boss Tom Pendergast, disgraced quarterback Michael Vick and Robert Stroud, later known as the “Bird Man of Alcatraz.”
Forty years ago, one of the most famous men on the planet entered Leavenworth prison voluntarily: Johnny Cash. Cash was at the peak of his powers in 1970. Two earlier prison albums, recorded at San Quentin and Folsom, had not only re-established Cash’s reputation, but earned him a television show on ABC. The Man in Black was beamed into nearly four million homes each week and selling out big venues, such as Madison Square Garden.
Cash shuffled into Leavenworth between taping two episodes of his show, a month after playing the White House and 10 days before performing at a Billy Graham Crusade in Knoxville, Tenn. A series of thunderstorms and tornado warnings threatened to sabotage Cash’s penitentiary appearance, but the weather relented.
Inmate Albert Nussbaum recalled Cash’s visit in an essay included in the book “Ring of Fire: The Johnny Cash Reader.”
“When the notice appeared on cell house bulletin boards – and even before, when rumors started to circulate – a tension began to build,” Nussbaum wrote. “Cash was going to arrive on a Friday afternoon. The prison factory was going to close. Anyone who wanted to see the show could.”
A makeshift stage was erected in the prison exercise yard; wooden bleachers for the prisoners were set up in the infield of the prison’s baseball diamond. The day’s schedule is unclear. Nussbaum reports the bleachers started filling up at 10 a.m. even though Cash wasn’t expected to arrive until 2 p.m. The Leavenworth Times reported he played in the morning.
Whatever the order, this much is clear: Cash’s entourage played three institutions that day. The troupe performed at Kansas State Penitentiary and Kansas Women’s Industrial Reformatory in Lansing either immediately before, or after playing Leavenworth. The night before, they performed at Municipal Auditorium in Kansas City, Mo.
The show opened with the standard brief opening sets from Carl Perkins, the Statler Brothers and the Carter Family. When Cash finally took the stage he told the 1,200-strong crowd “This is the same show we did for President Nixon, but we’re going to try a little harder here.”
The weather had backed off enough to allow the concert to be held outside, but it still wrecked havoc with Cash’s band, particularly the dresses worn by the backing singers. Strong gusts kept sending skirts skyward, so the Carter sisters banded closely around Robbie Harden, who was having the most trouble.
The prisoners, of course, delighted in any glimpse of female flesh they could gather. After a particularly strong stream of cheers and whistles Cash egged the prisoners on and goaded his singer. “They’re talking to you, Robbie,” he needled.
Cash also teased the audience.
“My mother told me when I was a little boy, be the best you can be at whatever you do,” Cash said. “If you’re going to be a baker, bake the best bread in town. If you’re going to pick cotton, pick more than any other man in the county … and if you’re going to rob banks, hit First National.”
During “Folsom Prison Blues” Nussbaum reported that Cash switched the song’s locale to Leavenworth.
“When he reached the words ‘I ain’t seen the sunshine since I don’t know when’ we who hadn’t seen the horizon in years were able to identify with the tone and mood of the song,” he wrote. “It captured our own feelings so exactly that our roar of approval completely drowned out the music.”
The cascade of hits and emotions – including “A Boy Named Sue,” “The Prison Song” and “Peace in the Valley” – combined with Cash’s physique and all-black attire made the legend seem larger than life to Nussbaum.
“It wasn’t his size or his costume that captured and held everyone’s attention – it was the look on his face and the sound in his voice,” Nussbaum wrote. “Cash is real. He has a bad cough and smokes too much. So did most of us who had come to see him. He has a look of suffering caused by a hard life and years of one-night stands in forgettable places. We all had pasts we didn’t like to think about either.”
After the show, Cash ambled over to the boundary near where the prisoners were corralled, shaking hands and signing autographs.
Cash was playing before a paying audience the previous night in Kansas City, but no less thrilling. Jerry Kohler covered the show for the Kansas City Star.
“A cross-section of Middle America … packed the auditorium to hear Johnny Cash tell it like it is,” Kohler wrote. “He didn’t disappoint.”
According to Kohler, high points included “Walk the Line,” “Jackson” and “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord.” Kohler also mentioned the Statler Brothers’ reading of “How Great Thou Art” and the two songs featuring Mother Maybelle Carter on lead vocals, “Wildwood Flower” and “Black Mountain Rag.”
The joyous evening ended with the best news of the night when Cash announced his TV show had been renewed for another season.
“We’ll try to keep it honest and down to earth,” Cash said of the upcoming season. Whether in prison, on tour or over the air there was no other way the Man in Black would do it.