Johnny Cash outside the gates of Folsom Prison, where today a nearby bike trail honors the music legend. (Photo: Getty Images)
The Johnny Cash live album At Folsom Prison has sold more than 3 million copies over the years, and it now may be selling, of all things, a bike path. On Oct. 4, the City of Folsom, Calif., opened the first phase of its Johnny Cash Trail, surrounding the grounds of the state prison where Cash held his famous 1968 concert. The 2.5-mile bike path is planned to be complemented by a two-acre park filled with art installations related to Cash and his Folsom concert experience, including a 40-foot-tall black metal statue of the man and an etched wall of granite rocks from the prison grounds.
It does seem odd to commemorate the Man in Black and a notorious prison with a paved cycling trail, as neither Cash nor the prison conjures up visions of wholesome outdoor activities (just imagine Cash in spandex on a 10-speed, his pompadour tucked into a bike helmet, ashes from his cigarette blowing in the wind, as a chain gang jogs behind him).
Robert Goss, director of Folsom’s Parks and Recreation Department, told Yahoo Travel that he admits the idea initially “seems incongruous,” but with the addition of an interactive set of Cash and Folsom-themed exhibits along the trail, it promises what should become a deeply resonant experience.
Planned for the Johnny Cash Trail: a steel-and-aluminum silhouette of Cash (Photo: Romo Studios)
The idea for the trail came about when the Parks Department began planning a connection between two bike paths leading from Folsom Lake to the American River. The path would cross near and over the grounds of Folsom Prison. Rather than ignoring the huge stone structure lurking over the hill, the city decided to acknowledge the prison and even celebrate the unique concert event as its heritage.
One local city official told Yahoo Travel, “For years, the city of Folsom worked to distance itself from the prison, but the Cash album has had such long-term impact both here and abroad that we eventually just decided to embrace it as part of our identity.” Visitors to the town invariably pose near the city-limits sign or near the east gate of the prison, where Cash himself stood for photos prior to his concert. The existing Folsom Prison Museum just outside those gates already has a Cash-related exhibit about the concert, with memorabilia for sale.
The gates of Folsom Prison have long been a favorite posing spot for fans of Cash. (Photo: The Buried Life/Flickr)
So when a nearby bike and pedestrian overpass was designed, the planners decided to augment it with rusted rails reminiscent of jail cells and to bookend the bridge with concrete towers in the same style of those in the prison. Johnny’s daughter Rosanne Cash, who was just in town to perform a concert of her own (albeit in a new $50 million concert hall and not a prison cafeteria) came to christen the opening of the overpass, to the delight of the many local cyclists eager to be the first to traverse the path.
Pedestrian and bike overpass on the Johnny Cash Trail (Photo: Jim Kirstein/City of Folsom)
The imposing towers are just the beginning of the project. The city opened a competition for artists to design Cash-in-Folsom installations to fill the planned trail-side park and to line the trail itself. Artist Adan Romo won the right to create six separate installations for the park, his proposal beating out those from 20 other national artists. From his backyard studio in nearby Sacramento, Romo explained to Yahoo Travel his vision for the project.
Proposed bronze statue of the singer (Photo: Romo Studios)
“I knew it had an awkward part to it. You can’t really celebrate prison; you don’t want to glorify criminals or turn the thing into a Disney park,” he said. “When the city planners initially told me they wanted musical kiosks, I thought, ‘Oh God, no…’”
Instead, Romo immersed himself in trying to find “the essential truth” of Johnny Cash and his concert experience at Folsom Prison. Romo watched Cash videos, listened to his music, and read his biography until he distilled what he felt were some key messages.
The 17-foot-tall towers (Photo: Romo Studios)
“The Cash performance at Folsom was about redemption — not only for prisoners, who were considered to be untouchables not worthy of such a show, but for Cash himself, who had gone through some hard times and whose career was in decline,” Romo said. “Both the prisoners and Cash discovered something behind the bars of the prison that raised them to a higher level.”
So Romo designed several art installations for the trail to share this message of discovery and redemption. One, a series of laser-cut 17-foot-tall towers, will be placed so that from one angle they look like stark cell-block bars. From another angle, the profile of Cash and his guitar will be revealed. A series of granite blocks taken from the same quarry as the prison walls is planned; they will be carved with messages that prisoners mailed to Cash after his show.
A seven-foot-tall bronze guitar pick will also adorn the park. (Photo: Romo Studios)
Additional statues by Romo and another artist are planned, one with Cash sitting on a stool near the prison gates, and a glowing “Ring of Fire” guitar pick sculpture will be the backdrop of a planned music amphitheater. This may seem a little glitzy for Johnny Cash; after all, this is the guy who kicked out the stage lights at the hallowed Grand Ole Opry (and was initially banned for life). But his daughter Cindy Cash represented the family on the selection committee for the artworks, and she declared that the project “resonates with our view of what our father was all about. He would have liked going out on the trail with his walking stick.”
The trail will feature a Cash-inspired Ring of Fire. (Photo: Romo Studios)
And yes, there will even be an app for the trail. Rather than having music playing from speakers (“That’s something that would drive even the biggest Cash fan crazy after a while,” said Romo), a smartphone app is planned to augment a visitor’s experience with on-demand songs, stories, and background for each of the installations, to be played through headphones.
As it stands today, the Johnny Cash Trail is just some blacktop and an imposing overpass (although the path does wind through some surprisingly scenic areas). The city is planning to crowdsource the additional $3 million in funding required to create the art projects and develop the parklands.
Site near the start of Phase II of the Johnny Cash Trail. Bring your guitar. (Photo: Folsom Parks & Recreation)
Depending on the speed of funding, the full interactive Johnny Cash Trail Experience may take years to complete. But gritty Cash purists take note: Even with the happy, healthy bikers whizzing by, there are still spots along the trail now (and in the future park) to sit in the shadows, strum a guitar, and let “that lonesome whistle” of traffic blow your blues away.