Johnny Cash At San Quentin: Legacy Edition

Johnny Cash

“San Quentin, I hate every inch of you
You’ve cut me and you’ve scarred me through and through”

When Johnny Cash recorded Johnny Cash At San Quentin in 1969, it marked the high point of his popularity. A follow-up to his hugely successful Folsom Prison recordings the year before, San Quentin showed Cash at his roughhouse best — full of brash bravado and giving the average American a glimpse at a side that showed him to be more kindred to those in the audience that evening than to Nashville or the hippie rock scene that was grinding to an inevitable halt. But 1969 was a year that saw a country ready for such attitude. A prison record seemed to go hand-in-hand with the events that unfolded later that year: Four people died at the Altamont festival in San Francisco in what was supposed to be a smaller, West coast version of Woodstock, and opposition to the Vietnam War reached its peak. It was rowdy year that foretold the end of a psychedelic “love” era that was spinning out of control and burning out. Johnny Cash – with his own demons at his heels – was a mirror of the times.

While the original 1969 release was an undoubted success, fans were only given a glimpse of a performance that included numbers by the Carter Family, Carl Perkins, and The Statler Brothers. The original nine tracks failed to show just how good the inmates of the maximum security facility actually had it that evening; they were treated to a full-blown, three-hour musical feast. Fortunately, the folks at Columbia Records went into the archives and, instead of simply remastering and rehashing the original release, gave us the whole thing: All 31 tracks in chronological order, as it happened on February 24, 1969. The resulting two-CD, one-DVD boxed set stands as an historical account of the power and charisma that Cash possessed, as much as it shows the exceptional concert performances. Johnny Cash At San Quentin: Legacy Edition does just what the title suggests, illuminating and securing Cash’s legacy as one of the great performers in popular music history, whether you called it rock and roll…country…folk music… or something else entirely. Johnny Cash eluded labels, but he put on a damned fine show.

The CDs kick off with Carl Perkins rocking through “Blue Suede Shoes” and traverses through the Statler Brothers performing their hit “Flowers On the Wall,” the Carter Family showcasing their vocal harmonies on “The Last Thing On My Mind” and their classic “Wildwood Flower” before the man takes the stage with his signature announcement:

“Hello, I’m Johnny Cash.”

The hall erupts and the energy level intensifies as Cash commands the stage with such hits as “Big River,” “Wreck of the Old 97,” “I Walk the Line,” “The Long Black Veil,” and the raucous “Folsom Prison Blues.” Cash mesmerizes the inmates and holds them at the edge of anarchy with his commanding presence.

The second disc begins with Cash performing two rounds of “San Quentin,” a song written a few days prior just for the show. With each line he sings the mess hall explodes into raucous cheering; a sort of lawless call and response. You get the idea that, with a subtle gesture or nod, he’d send the whole place into a riot.

The evening paces itself with musicians rotating onto the stage – A Carl Perkins number here, a Cash/Carter duet there – and wraps up with the entire troupe taking the stage to perform a series of spirited numbers, ultimately wrapping up with a reprising medley of the hits.

The included DVD features a 60 minute documentary that originally aired in the U.K. detailing the events of the evening. The 40-page full color booklet provides even more insight into the performances. Already a landmark recording, this new collection expands upon what was already considered the top Country record of the ‘60s and brings into sharp focus the legend of one of music’s great performers.

~ Andrew Todd

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