Johnny Cash and the Ballad of Glen Sherley

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As part of KCRW’s Lost Notes, reporter Peter Gilstrap tells the tale of how the often incarcerated Country musician Glen Sherley found his life intertwined with the life of Johnny Cash. Subscribe to the podcast here

It’s a January morning in 1968. There are 1,000 convicts in mess hall #2 at Folsom State Prison, but they aren’t here to eat.

They’re hooting, hollering, clapping, pounding fists on metal tables. It seems like every one of these men are puffing on cigarettes.

The object of their excitement is Johnny Cash. He’s onstage under the harsh fluorescent lights, standing tall behind a nicotine veil of smoke, strumming his Martin acoustic as his five-piece band churns out a prison-ready set of songs like “Cocaine Blues,” “I Got Stripes,” and “Send a Picture of Mother.”

Down in the front row there’s an inmate with a chiseled face and dark pompadour piled high. He’s sucking on a Pall Mall. Right now, he’s just another face in the criminal crowd, California state prisoner A597959C.

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 that guy in the front row. Glen Sherley. He has no idea that this is going to happen. He jumps out of his seat, elated.

This joyous, pivotal moment sparks a union between Cash and Sherley that would affect both men profoundly.

Johnny Cash, this Folsom show and its multi-million selling live album would become part of country music history. Fate would have something different in store for Glen Sherley.

Glen Sherley tears it up onstage at Vacaville for 800 of his fellow inmates. Photo courtesy of Ronda Sherley. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

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

Sherley had a bad attitude. By the late 1950s, he 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 a Burbank 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 — but he was never in bands, never had dreams of making it. He developed his skills on the inside.

He wrote what he knew about. Simple songs with stark, raw, truthful lyrics of life behind bars. From “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,” said 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.

So the night before the show, Cash and his band were rehearsing at the El Rancho Inn in Sacramento. Johnny got paid a visit by a friend, Reverend Floyd Gressett. Everything that followed hinged on this meeting.

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 recalled. “I stood over him while he copied the lyrics down.”

“To me, that song was kind of the heart of that record,” said Marty Stuart. “That was a great gesture, but it was also a great song and a deserving song, you know?”

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

“The Folsom Prison thing probably did save his career,” said 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,” said 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, who 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.

Glen Sherley onstage at Vacaville Prison where he was incarcerated, recording his live album on January 31, 1971. Pedal steel guitar player Lloyd Green is on the far right. Photo courtesy of Ronda Sherley. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

In 1969, 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 said. “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 began, Cash was astounded. There was Sherley, standing in front of the prison’s razor wire fence in his prison-issue denim, rough and good-looking in a Tommy Lee Jones way, making his television debut to millions. He was charismatic, humble and 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 blinked back the tears.

Cash committed himself to getting Sherley out of prison. He called in favors. He got California governor Ronald Reagan to pull strings on the legal side, and Christian power icon Rev. Billy Graham on the prayer front. The press loved the story.

And it worked

In March of ’71, Glen Sherley was paroled. His album was released a few weeks later and climbed 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.

Johnny Cash stands as best man at Glen Sherley’s second marriage at Cash’s home in Tennessee. June Carter Cash pins a carnation on Glen as Nickie Dobbins, soon to be Nickie Sherley, looks on. Photo courtesy of Ronda Sherley. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

In ‘72, Sherley remarried. Cash hosted the ceremony at his Nashville estate and stepped in as best man. He also flew Sherley’s kids in from Bakersfield, Bruce, 14, and Ronda, three years younger. It was the first time they’d ever been on an airplane, and the first time they’d ever laid eyes on Johnny Cash.

“I can remember John come walking down this huge, huge staircase,” said Bruce, a mechanic still living in Bakersfield. “And he came up and give both of us a hug. I’ll never forget it.”

Things were happening. 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. Bruce and Ronda were there, too.

“Except for in the living room, I didn’t see him singing anywhere until I went to the Forum,” said 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!”

It was exciting, it was unbelievable, and it was surreal. Particularly for Sherley, who soon found the transition to civilian life difficult.

Family portrait: Ronda, Glen and Bruce Sherley in a scrapbook photo, taken in the early ‘70s. Photo courtesy of Ronda Sherley. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)
Glen’s son Bruce Sherley, at home on his ranch in Bakersfield, California. Photo by Peter Gilstrap. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)
Glen Sherley’s daughter Ronda with her dog Tank, at home in Goodlettsville, Tennessee, just outside of Nashville. Photo by Peter Gilstrap. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

“The dichotomy between where he was at in that little cell and celebrityhood is not just a couple of dimensions, that’s universally separated,” Lloyd Green said. Sherley would hang out at Green’s house, sometimes arriving with a loaded gun. Green made him leave it in the car.

“He just wanted to talk about music, and how he could fit in, and what was he doing wrong? He said, ‘Lloyd, all my friends are left back in those various prisons up and down the west coast.’ I remember those terms he used so forcefully, almost nostalgically.”

Music historian 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 said. “You just swapping jail houses.”

However, Sherley was having trouble adapting to life outside. In 1972, Ronda left California for Nashville to move in with her dad., moving in with the father who’d been incarcerated most of her life. His transitional existence at that point was becoming increasingly problematic.

“He knew how to be someone in prison,” she said. “He didn’t know how to be the person people wanted him to be out here.”

Sherely found it difficult to toe the Nashville music industry line.

“I don’t think Glen knew how to play the game or cared anything much about playing the game,” said Marty Stuart. “Shaking hands and glad handing deejays and whatever ads you had to buy in Billboard magazine, and kissing babies, whatever back then you were required to do. Glen wasn’t a candidate for that business, so he was an outsider in that star making system.”

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

“I think when Dad was being Dad, meaning when he was not on drugs, he was someone you wanted to be around,” Ronda said. “But all the demons came out when he’d get on drugs. So it was difficult, but he was still my dad.”

At one point, Sherley allegedly threatened to kill Cash’s bass player and road manager Marshall Grant, an incident Grant recalled in a documentary interview a few years before his death.

“Now, don’t misunderstand, I love you,” Sherley supposedly said, “but what I’d really like to do to you, I’d like to get a butcher knife and start cutting you all to hell.” This was the final straw for Cash, who had wagered his faith, his name and his industry cache on this country music Pygmalion effort. But 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 said. “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?” said 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 with a job 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 was 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. After a turbulent, unsettled life, it seems like the right resting place for this man.

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

Glen Sherley’s final resting place at Shafter Memorial Park on the outskirts of Bakersfield. Photo by Peter Gilstrap. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Special thanks to Michael Streissguth, Peter Cooper and especially Ronda Sherley. Her father’s music can be found on the newly updated reissue album, Glen Sherley: Released Again available from Amazon.