Johnny Cash: Johnny Cash at Madison Garden

Johnny Cash
Johnny Cash at Madison Garden

An Unbroken Circle

While listening to Johnny Cash at Madison Square Garden, I began comparing it not to Cash’s other live records, which stand as some of the finest in country music, but instead to The Carnegie Hall Concert with Buck Owens and His Buckaroos.

Bear with me here.

Both Cash and Owens have made substantial contributions to country music, Cash with his rockabilly roots and freight-train rhythm and Owens with his Bakersfield Sound and Telecaster-driven rhythm. In 1966, at the height of career, Owens reluctantly brought the Buckaroos to Carnegie Hall, convinced there just weren’t many country fans in New York City — in fact, as an incentive, Capitol agreed to record and release the show. But as soon as WJRZ DJ Lee Arnold introduces the band and the music starts, Owens and the Buckaroos act as if they’re at home in the Blackboard, though the crowd is considerably better dressed and behaved, and in the end, Owens commends the audience for being one of the best he’s played for. The show itself is the work of professionals, clearly working in the Vaudeville tradition with carefully orchestrated clowning. (Take Don Rich’s wonderful version of “Streets of Laredo” or the band’s imitations of Tex Ritter, Ernest Tubb, and, yes, even, Johnny Cash.) In addition to Owens’ standards like “Together Again”, “Tiger by the Tail”, and “Love’s Going to Live Here”, there’s a rocking cover of “Twist and Shout”.

Buck Owens’ Carnegie Hall concert is generally considered one of the finest live works in country — and you won’t find me disagreeing with that.

But from the minute Johnny Cash steps to the microphone at Madison Square Garden on December 5, 1969, a volatile time in American history, and says, “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash”, all to the driving rhythm of “Big River”, the atmosphere is radically different. Although over 19,000 fans attended, Cash’s show from start to finish is personal — even intimate — as he talks about his history and family, his political views, and his religious faith. Indeed, Johnny Cash at Madison Square Garden serves as Cash’s autobiography, and the stories he tells remain as relevant today as they were then.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

To celebrate Johnny Cash’s 70th birthday, Sony-Legacy has been reissuing some of his albums (e.g., Johnny Cash Sings Ballads of the True West, Songs of Our Soul, Silver). The 26 songs that make up Johnny Cash at Madison Square Garden, however, have never been released, and they provide an important addition to the Cash discography.

In 1969, Cash’s career was at a high point. He practically owned the Country & Western charts with the top two songs of that year, “A Boy Named Sue” and “Daddy Sang Bass”. Johnny Cash at San Quentin, his second live album recorded at a prison, was at #1 for five months. In fact, in 1969, Cash had seven albums on the Country & Western chart. And then there was his network television program.

Cash brought to Madison Square Garden the “Johnny Cash Show”, which included Carl Perkins, the Statler Brothers, and the Carter Family’s Mother Maybelle, Helen, Anita, and Robbie Harden. (Wife June, pregnant with their first child, didn’t perform. As Cash explains at one point, “June told me to apologize for not being here tonight. She’s taking care of the family, the part of the family that’s due on March 10”.) And, of course, Cash had his band, the Tennessee Three: Marshall Grant (bass and with Cash for 14 years); W.S. Holland (drums), and Bob Wooton (electric guitar).

From the beginning, it’s clear that the “Johnny Cash Show” is different. He kicks off the evening with two of his signature hits, “Big River” and “I Still Miss Someone”, before addressing the audience and providing the evening’s theme: “I’d like to tell you a little bit in songs about ourselves and about our backgrounds”.

From there, Cash goes back to his own childhood with “Five Feet High and Rising” and “Pickin’ Time”, saying, “I wrote a lot about the life I knew back when I was a little bitty boy — and he introduces his father, Ray Cash, then 72, from the audience.

The range of songs Cash includes is staggering, reflecting the depth of his career and beliefs. There are historical songs like “Remember the Alamo” and “Wreck of the Old ’97” as well as more political history lessons in “Ballad of Ira Hayes” and “As Long as the Grass Shall Grow”, both addressing the violation of Native Americans.

Unlike many country musicians, Cash hasn’t been afraid to address political issues. At one point, he discusses his decision to play for US troops stationed outside Saigon. As he explains to the audience, during a press conference at the time, he had been asked if this decision made him a hawk. Cash replied, “That doesn’t make me a hawk . . . . It might make me a dove with claws” before starting “Last Night I had the Strangest Dream”.

Indeed, one of the things that distinguishes Cash’s career is his inclusiveness, his ability to make everyone feel like part of his family. Moreover, he makes clear that he’s no better than anyone else — even though his music was larger than life, Johnny Cash remained firmly rooted in Dyess, Arkansas: He is one of us.

Included are four prisons songs, “The Long Black Veil”, “The Wall”, “Send a Picture of Mother”, and “Folsom Prison Blues”, all clear references to Cash’s other landmark live recordings as well as his career-long decision to speak for those silenced.

Cash turns the microphone over to Carl Perkins, who performs his signature “Blue Suede Shoes”, the Statler Brothers add “Flowers on the Wall”, and the Carter Family sings two classics: “Wildwood Flower” and “Worried Man Blues”.

That’s fitting because, ultimately, Johnny Cash at Madison Square Garden is about family.

Cash sings about his faith and heavenly family in “Jesus was a Carpenter” and “He Turned the Water into Wine”, here a gospel song Cash introduces by describing a trip he and June had taken to Israel four years earlier. An album highlight is the traditional “Were You There (When They Crucified My Lord)” with the Carter Family and Statler Brothers joining Cash for a gospel jam, the 4-part harmonies grounded in Cash’s booming bass and an unusually subtle yet driving bass-line.

Indeed, all the themes come together in “Daddy Sang Bass”, Cash’s hit at the time and a song that segues into “Will the Circle Be Unbroken”, with the Carters and Statlers adding harmony. It is, ultimately, the reunion of all of Cash’s families, earthly and musical, and as the fans hear the music, both in Madison Square Garden and on this just-released album, they, too, become part of the family.

After that, there’s a hits-melody of “I Walk the Line”, “Ring of Fire”, “The Rebel”, and “Folsom Prison Blues”, which find all of the Johnny Cash Show singing along.

And then Cash closes the show with “Suppertime”, a song about a mother calling to her children: “Come home, come home! It’s suppertime . . . We’re going home at last”. It is a perfect ending, bringing together the threads of the evening: Cash’s memories of his childhood, the importance of family and inclusiveness, and his enduring belief in going home, where the circle is unbroken.