Gene Beley’s exhibit, “1968: A Folsom Redemption,” will take guests of the Birthplace of Country Music Museum through the story of Johnny Cash’s concert at Folsom Prison on Thursday at 7 p.m. Tickets are available online and at the museum.
(WJHL) – For Gene Beley, becoming a close friend of Johnny Cash was just a stroke of luck. For Johnny Cash, the chance to perform for the prisoners of Folsom Prison was another thing entirely.
“I was a 28-year-old reporter for the Ventura Star-Free Press,” Beley said. “I should say reporter/photographer because we did everything. I had just gotten out of UCLA with my master’s degree in journalism, so I was just a greenhorn reporter.”
To fill spare time and grow his portfolio, Gene would shoot and write national freelance stories with his editor Dan Poush. Most of the time they were relatively minor magazine gigs, but one night that all changed.
“Dan called me and said, ‘Hey Gene, we’ve been invited to go to Folsom Prison with Johnny Cash,'” Beley said. Poush had just recently met Reverend Floyd Gressett, one of Cash’s closest friends at the time and the concert’s organizer.
“I was a little bit dubious,” Beley recalled. “Because at that time, John was so on the skids. I mean, he had just been arrested for smuggling pep pills in his guitar across the Mexican border.”
Beley admitted that their stories and those of other publications hadn’t been easy on Cash and had taken him to task in the past. Beley knew the assignment wasn’t going to be easy either way, so he had to gain John’s trust off the bat.
To do that, he went to meet Johnny’s parents out in Ventura County.
Meeting The Man in Black
When he showed up at Ray Cash and Carrie Cloveree’s house, Beley said John and June Carter were out on a walk. When they got back, the reporter persona went out the window, and Beley was enthralled.
“It looked like they had just stepped off a movie screen,” Beley said. “John was dressed in a white turtleneck sweater and blue blazer, and of course June was beautiful. And I didn’t realize then, she was more famous than he was.”
With the initial star-strike out of the way, Beley got to work photographing the family at rest and play.
“I decided to use his nephew Timmy Hancock, who was 6 years old at the time,” Beley said. “And I asked John if he’d be willing to swing Timmy on the backyard swing.”
That shot didn’t quite work out, but Beley caught another that captured exactly the energy he was looking for: John and Timmy arm-wrestling at the kitchen table.
“I think I had a good relationship with John and was able to do so many things because it all started with taking pictures of his family,” Beley said. “When you look at the picture I took of his parents and sister, that tells more than I can tell right now. It was a bond.”
With the hard-nosed performer won over, the real challenge began.
Behind Bars with Johnny
“Our constellations were perfectly aligned that day,” Beley told News Channel 11 with a giddy smile, speaking of the day he walked into Folsom Prison. “There was something in the air — it was magical.”
When he stepped into the prison, which housed some of California’s roughest offenders, the 28-year-old was only armed with a reel-to-reel tape recorder.
“It helps to be stupid sometimes,” Beley said. “Because who would think that you could take a tape recorder into Folsom Prison with Columbia Record executives supervising it?”
When the execs inevitably objected to his recording — they were there to cut an album, after all — Cash was the first to vouch for him.
“John spoke up with a smile and says, ‘Yes he can; he’s my friend, and he’s a reporter from Ventura,'” Beley recalled. “Right then, I knew who the boss was.”
Beley’s recorder ended up on-stage and captured audio that he treasures to this day. He sat in the front row with the rest of the inmates.
“When I first was there sitting in that seat alongside the prisoners, I was very nervous,” Beley recalled. “What’s to prevent them from grabbing Ray Cash and myself and causing a riot? But I looked up above on a catwalk and see the guards with long rifles, and I relaxed from there on.”
The concert itself went off without a hitch and is lauded as one of Cash’s best. Part of that comes from a late-night addition to the set list that may not have happened without Beley present.
The Prison Songbird
“We were sitting around the motel room the night before in West Sacramento, and Reverend Gressett said, ‘John, I promised this woman that you would listen to a demo tape,'” Beley said. “And John said, ‘Well what’s it about?’
“Gresset said, ‘All I know is it was written by an inmate in Folsom Prison.'”
That tape was the first time the song “Greystone Chapel” had made it out from behind bars. When writer and performer Glen Shirley penned it, he was serving time in Folsom. The only recorder available was Beley’s; if he hadn’t been there Cash may never have heard it.
“He started singing, and I blurted out, ‘John, this guy’s so good if they let him out of prison he’ll put you out of business,'” Beley said. “And then I thought to myself, ‘Who am I to be telling legendary Johnny Cash something like that?’ Later, I think he came to enjoy my audacious comments.”
Cash took the jab in stride and told Beley to take the recorder to his room. He spent that night writing down the song’s lyrics and had Shirley sit in the front row the next day. When Cash said his name and started his song, the entire room of men erupted.
“He jumped out of his seat probably two feet in the air,” Beley said. “Had the biggest bulging eyes and happiest smile I’ve ever seen in my life. It was the highlight of the concert for me, just that one moment.”
After Shirley’s big break, Cash fought to have him pardoned in California. After serving the remainder of his sentences in other states, he toured alongside Cash as part of the band. In the end, Shirley couldn’t shake the drugs and violence that had landed him in prison in the first place.
“He threatened one of the band members,” Beley said. “And said he wanted to cut him to pieces. That’s when John fired him.”
After his firing, Shirley spent time performing elsewhere before eventually committing suicide in California at the age of 42. Beley said the news of Shirley’s death weighed on Cash, and ultimately ended his visits.
“It made John quit promoting the prisoner performances,” Beley said. “I don’t think he did any more prison performances after that.”
Why Go To Prison?
Cash spent several stints in jail but was never booked into prison. Why, then, did he spend so much time in them as a visitor?
“He was an intellectual and completely different from his public image at that time especially,” Beley said. “I mean, he was totally on the skids when I first met him.”
After the concert, June Carter was talking to Beley when it clicked.
“She said, ‘You know what makes Johnny tick? It’s because they relate to him,'” Beley recalled. “He looked like he’d been in prison, a lot of people think he’s been in prison.”
Cash campaigned for the incarcerated for much of his career. In his song “Man in Black,” the lyrics spelled it out.
“I wear it for the prisoner who is long paid for his crime,” Cash sang. “But is there because he’s a victim of the times.”
Beley said John combined his outlaw persona with his compassionate personal life and spent much of his life advocating for the downtrodden. As the Man in Black, Cash carried a bit of suffering with him every day.