When Johnny Cash brought his hillbilly troupe to Madison Square Garden on 5 December 1969, it was less than six months after Woodstock. The Vietnam War was raging. And in New York City, “country” was still widely regarded as the music of ignorant rednecks and “hawks”. An alarming percentage of the flower-power generation was attempting to attain higher consciousness “at three bucks a hit”. The soundtrack to this supposed awakening was albums mimicking the ornate lushness of Pet Sounds and the high voltage clamor of Are You Experienced. Lurking beneath the media fueled hippie hype, however, was an insurgent movement, both in terms of aesthetics and sound, to the romanticized sensibilities of rural America. The pilgrimage was spearheaded by the aural adventures of Bob Dylan, the Byrds/Gram Parsons, the Band and the most unlikely candidate of the quorum to have youth appeal, someone the anti-establishment rebels parents most likely appreciated, John R. Cash.
The album buying hipsters lending an ear to the organic sounds being peddled by the above mentioned were seeking shelter from the same political maelstrom as the rest of their disillusioned generation. It was just that now escape was being offered in the form of homespun ballad simplicity rather than drug pandering lyrics and fussy layers of instrumentation.
In March of 1968, Dylan released the acoustic John Wesley Harding. The album championed an outlaw in the title track, was rife with Old and New Testament Biblical references and featured the pedal steel laden, straight country closer “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight”. In August of ‘68, Dylan’s former backing unit, the Band, released their critically acclaimed debut, Music From Big Pink, an earthy collection that featured originals, in addition to the Cash popularized composition “Long Black Veil” and unreleased Dylan covers from the summer of 1967 Basement Tape sessions that, as unofficial bootlegs have since revealed, contain several outtakes of other songs written and/or recorded by Cash. The same month also witnessed the release of the Byrds’ country-rock template Sweet Heart of the Rodeo, which featured such originals as Parsons’ “Hickory Wind” alongside interpretations of country, folk and bluegrass standards. Previous to his one-off Byrds collaboration, Parsons had recorded Safe At Home with the International Submarine Band. Among the covers included on that album were Cash’s “I Still Miss Someone” and “Folsom Prison Blues”.
On 13 January 1968, prior to the previously noted releases, Cash, country music’s most recognizable face, entered the bowels of Folsom Prison and recorded the most successful album of his career. The juxtaposition of such revved up readings of “Folsom Prison Blues” (originally recorded with Sam Phillips behind the boards) and poignant folk numbers like “Long Black Veil” suddenly made Cash a bigger crossover success than he had been since his days alongside Elvis, Jerry Lee, and Perkins at Sun Records at a time when the lines between what constituted rock, R&B and country were still in their infancy. Cash’s hip status was reinforced by his collaboration with Dylan the following year on “Girl from the North Country” (Nashville Skyline) and the inclusion of guests like Dylan and Joni Mitchell on his nationally televised variety show.
By the turn of the decade, the empty promises of the psychedelic bubble would burst, leading to the confessional singer/song writer and country-tinged tunes that soon dominated the pop charts. Cash was at the forefront of this late-‘60s return to American roots and bare bones recording approach. Credit Cash and his renegade attitude with helping to pave the way for the ‘70s Music Row-altering (for a time, at least), “outlaw” development that Willie, Waylon & Co. cashed in with as well.
After 1969, Cash would never attain such street cred with rock fans, again. However, his current genre-crossing iconic status, one that has led to collaborations with U2 and Rick Rubin, among others, was eternally solidified with such performances as At Folsom (1968), At San Quentin (1969) and numerous other sold-out gigs in cities across the nation like the one documented on At Madison Square Garden—a record that represents Cash at his sagacious, leather-faced, been there, done that, finest. Whether singing, offering anecdotes concerning his upbringing as the son of an Arkansas sharecropper or clarifying his stance on the war, Cash’s Grand Canyon baritone sounds as relaxed and assured as if he was participating in one of the legendary song swaps that he used to conduct at his Nashville home with the likes of Dylan, Mitchell, Kris Kristofferson, and Shel Silverstein.
Over the course of the album’s generous, but never tiring, 77-minute running time, Cash balances the Silverstein-penned novelty “A Boy Named Sue” with the politically charged pro-Native American anthem “The Ballad of Ira Hayes”. Backed by the boom-chick-booming Tennessee Three, Cash delivers impassioned readings of his biggest hits to date, with a heavy emphasis being placed on his post-Sun, Columbia output. To reinforce his pro-soldier/anti-war position, articulated in a moving between song rap wherein Cash describes himself as “a dove with claws,” Cash offers a cover of Ed McCurdy’s “Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream”. Cash also captures the attention of the sizeable urban Yankee crowd with earnest, non-finger-pointing Christian spirituals.
Lately there has been a litany of Cash reissues vacillating between superfluous and essential. At Madison Square Garden ranks much closer to essential. Although the intensity of the setting and the historical value of Cash’s live prison documents from the same period is unapproachable, the 1969 Garden show is superior sounding to San Quentin, which is greatly undermined by the fact that Cash’s voice was shot to hell on the date it took place. And with 26 tracks, as opposed to 19, including a number each by cast members Carl Perkins (“Blue Suede Shoes”), the Carter Family though sans June who was about to give birth (“Wildwood Flower”), and the Statler Brothers (“Flowers on the Wall”), Madison Square Garden edges Folsom as the most thorough representation of Cash and his all star touring lineup at their collective peak—succeeding as both an interesting period piece and, moreover, as a satisfying listen.