Music

Johnny Cash: At San Quentin

Johnny Cash had visited many penal institutions throughout his life -- sometimes as a guest, other times, an occupant. Turned out that his visit to San Quentin yielded one of the greatest country albums ever made.


Johnny Cash

At San Quentin

Subtitle: Legacy Edition
Label: Legacy
US Release Date: 2006-11-14
UK Release Date: Available as import
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This should sum up the life of the late Johnny Cash: while playing before some of the meanest convicts on the planet in San Quentin, he wrote a song specifically about the horrors of that very prison. During his concert, recorded to make At San Quentin, he not only performed the song (titled "San Quentin", natch), which features sentiments such as, "San Quentin, I hate every inch of you/ You cut me and carve me through and through," and "San Quentin, may you burn and rot in hell," he performed it TWICE IN A ROW! And then, to top it off, after playing it the first time, he then asked, "If any of the guards are still speaking to me, can I get a glass of water?"

Cash was a unique performer, both in and out of the country genre proper. His early style, dubbed "chick-a-boom" for its sound-alike rhythms, featured lyrics borne of honesty in feelings and/or actions. And after success from his rise from the Sun Studio days to his early works for Columbia Records, Cash decided to record a live album on the grounds of a penal institution. The result was 1968's At Folsom Prison, where, of course, his own famous intro was birthed: "Hello, I'm Johnny Cash." Armed with more material and more popularity, Cash decided that on February 24, 1969 (two days shy of his 37th birthday), he would go to even a meaner prison -- hence, At San Quentin was born.

The original album (you all remember vinyl records, don't you?) was released with 10 songs in 1969. In 2000, with the popularity of CD's on the rise, giving more space for music, Columbia re-released the album, calling it "The Complete Concert". Six years later, this sucker is re-re-released (as Legacy Edition with some major add-on's: the original 31-song concert, with opening acts Carl Perkins, The Statler Brothers, and The Carter Family, featuring Cash's wife June, in addition to four more Cash songs that were on the (as it turns out) incomplete concert. Also included is a DVD of the event as it was taped for Granada TV in England, which is awesome -- more on that later.

Cash had the ability to charm the balls off a Christmas tree, and he managed to pull off a show where he had the respect of the prisoners AND the guards, simply because prison was no stranger to the man in black. Cash had spent nights in jail, and one night was chronicled in one of the songs on here, "Starkville City Jail", where Cash managed to be both funny and bitter. On this package, it's not just the songs that stand out, but Cash's patter to the prisoners between (and sometimes during) songs. Even June Carter gets into the act when the Carter Family goes on as an opening act.

As for Cash's songs, they all kick ass. Just listen to "Folsom Prison Blues", and hear the advent of heavy rock with Bob Wooten's freak-out guitar. (Cash's original guitarist, Luther Perkins, died seven months prior to the prison jaunt.) Cash also has a blast singing the tune, with a few "YEAH's!" sprinkled in, and his mimicking of the guitar part. "I Walk the Line" finishes off with Cash jokingly admonishing a cameraman for being in the wrong position inside a prison. Of course, "San Quentin" gets the longest and loudest ovation -- both times. This album also marked the debut of Cash's biggest hit single, "A Boy Named Sue". He also does a fine job of covering Bob Dylan's "Wanted Man", and John Sebastian's "Darling Companion".

Perkins sounds simply amazing during his three-song appearance, and the intensity on "Blue Suede Shoes" comes through crystal clear. The Statler Brothers had a major hit with "Flowers on the Wall" (old-timers like me recognized the song as soon as the first verse was out), and a cover of Glen Campbell's "Less of Me". The Carter Family did a lovely job on "Wildwood Flower", and adding vocals on Cash's "Ring of Fire".

The DVD is a gem, as it shows the grim reality of life in one of the toughest penal colonies in the United States interspersed with Cash's sometimes-funny, sometimes-deadly serious, but always intense songs and chit-chat. There are compelling interviews with both prisoners and guards. Also, if any of you have seen that classic shot of Cash extending his middle digit (included in the 40-page booklet which comes with the package), well, it came from the taping, when he got pissed that one of the cameras blocked the view between he and the audience. And speaking of the audience, at the time of the taping (how's this for karma?), sitting in the first row was one Merle Haggard -- yes, THAT Merle Haggard. And no, he wasn't at San Quentin on a social call -- twas a 15-year vacation from society for armed robbery (and he was drunk trying to commit the robbery, to boot).

This is the perfect package to capture one of the most dynamic musicians to ever grace Planet Earth. And with At San Quentin (Legacy Edition), the legacy of the early part of Johnny Cash's career is set. The man in black provided us with one of the most colorful albums in the Columbia archives, and with the entire concert, including dialogue, a DVD, and a jaw-dropping booklet, the question of purchasing this is a no-brainer. Do it.

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Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

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