“Greystone Chapel," Johnny Cash, 1968
At Folsom Prison, the album that reignited the Man in Black's career—a risky album, at that, for the times—reaches its crescendo at the finale when Cash played “Greystone Chapel,” a song written by Folsom inmate Glen Sherley. Cash only learned the song the night before—and his nervousness over the number showed up as he introduced it; he later said he regretted identifying Sherley, which could have led to other inmates assaulting the prisoner. But the song got the biggest applause of the concert.
There's a Greystone Chapel here at Folsom
A house of worship in this den of sin …
It's hard to tell by the roaring applause at this juncture whether the inmates were reacting to the “house of worship” or the “den of sin.” No matter—Sherley expresses his love for God and the strength his faith received from seeing that chapel each day, where “the door to the house of God is never locked.” The chorus sums up:
Inside the walls of prison my body may be
But my Lord has set my soul free
The Folsom concert (Johnny actually had two concerts in the prison that day) featured Cash standards such as “Folsom Prison Blues” and “Cocaine Blues.” Cash was backed by his future wife June Carter, The Tennessee Three, Carl Perkins and the Statler Brothers. The album regained commercial success for Cash, even leading to his own TV show. At Folsom Prison has since gone multi-platinum, and has been designated one of the greatest albums of all time.
While writing a devotional about “Greystone Chapel,” I thought of Paul's words in 2 Corinthians 4:7, how God's treasure is carried in jars of clay—namely, us. God used a song by an inmate—through Johnny Cash—to encourage others to look to Jesus, and to never forget those milestones in our walk with God that rebuild our faith when it is weakened. I wish I could tack on a happy ending for Sherley here, but his life after his eventual release took a very dark and sad turn.
Nonetheless, “Greystone Chapel” is a classic song about God's redemption power; His use of imperfect “jars or clay” to carry out His perfect will; and how our faith can be renewed and strengthened in seemingly hopeless situations, that for us can be our own prison.