They’re singing the blues again at Folsom prison after officials canceled a concert marking the 40th anniversary of Johnny Cash’s groundbreaking performance there, with the prison and the promoter blaming each other for the decision.
The event, scheduled for Sunday, was canceled late Monday over security concerns and what officials called the changing demands of event organizers.
Promoter Jonathan Holiff, who says his father was Cash’s onetime manager, said Folsom State Prison’s pulling the plug on the show was the last in a series of broken agreements by its officials.
“I’m crushed,” Holiff said. “I was in tears when I found out.”
The concert, to have been staged in the same prison cafeteria where Cash performed before a raucous crowd Jan. 13, 1968, would have featured the country singer’s music and drummer W.S. “Fluke” Holland, one of his original backup musicians.
The live album resulting from the first event, “Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison,” was heralded as a breakthrough for Cash’s career. It was a commercial smash, spending two years on the pop charts and selling more than 2 million copies. The album later led to Cash’s prime-time television series.
After four months of planning, the concert was called off over filming rights, media access and security.
Oscar Hidalgo, a spokesman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation in Sacramento, said Holiff had demanded film rights to the event.
The promoters “said that if we allowed access to the media, the band would not play,” Hidalgo said. “This is a prison. We’re dealing with inmates, and you don’t un-ring the bell with them. Our security instincts took over. We didn’t want an incident. We were taking no chances.”
He said the promoters also demanded exclusive rights over the event’s filming. “No one gets exclusive rights in a state prison,” he said.
“We’re not renting out an auditorium here. If this is truly a tribute to Johnny Cash, why not let the media witness that tribute?”
Holiff said he had proposed media access months ago and was told by officials that they couldn’t have journalists “running around” inside the prison.
“Their allegation is baseless and without merit,” he said. “The true story is embarrassing to the department. Someone’s ego in Sacramento has been bruised. And he basically carries enough weight to cancel the show.”
Holiff said he met Folsom Warden Matthew Kramer last year while shooting a movie about his late father. The two reached an agreement about the concert, with the prison paying for security and preparations. He said state officials reneged, requiring him to pay $15,000 in advance for those items.
The concert, which was to be streamed worldwide over the Internet, was underwritten by a group of four nonprofits that were to split 20% share of the venture’s profits.
Holiff said the prison had limited the media coverage to a TV pool camera but that he had offered to provide reporters with footage from the four cameras he was using to make his film.
“I have a fiduciary responsibility to the band, as their manager,” he said. “It’s against their policy to allow cameras in any performance in an unrestricted way. And I told prison officials that until we could agree on a formula to handle media in back of the room,” the band would not perform.
Hidalgo said the promoters made numerous event changes, including having a comedian introduce the band. He said the concert also would have upset prison meal and visitation schedules.
“We’re no longer talking 40 years back, with Johnny Cash performing with a few guitars and a speaker,” he said. “This was a major production, with a stage and four camera posts. The plans were ever-changing.”
Joe Avila, executive director of Prison Fellowship Ministries, which had helped underwrite the event, said Cash fans and the inmates themselves were losing out.
“The whole Johnny Cash story is one of redemption,” he said. “Johnny was wild at heart, just like these men. But just like him, they can change. They can walk the line.”
Times staff writer Randy Lewis contributed to this report.