“They say old Johnny Cash works good under pressure… Put the screws on me, and I’ll screw right out from under you… I’m tired of all that [bleep]. .. I’ll tell you what, the show is being recorded and televised for England… they said, you gotta do this song, you gotta do that song, you know, you gotta stand like this, you gotta act like this, and I just don’t get it man, you know? I’m here, I’m here to do what you want me to and what I want to do, all right?”

At San QuentinSo goes Johnny’s rambling interaction with an audience of convicts on his second prison album, At San Quentin. Recorded in early 1969 and released later that year, it shows the duality of a man who had just released a full album in tribute to the Holy Land. With the massive success of At Folsom Prison the year earlier, it’s not surprising that Columbia would release a copy-cat cash-in shortly thereafter. What is truly surprising is that At San Quentin stands equally with Folsom, offering deeper insight into Cash the performer, songwriter and man.

Where 1968 had been a bumper year for Johnny, 1969 was far more difficult, largely because of the death of guitarist Luther Perkins in a tragic house fire. Since 1967, though, Cash’s studio and live performances had been augmented by Carl “Blue Suede Shoes” Perkins, a far more virtuosic player than Luther. Nevertheless, it was Luther’s tic-tock shuffle that was crucial to the boom-chicka-boom sound. Ever the professional, though, Cash continued on both in the studio and on stage. Rather than seeking out a Nashville pro, he turned to superfan Bob Wooten, who had once filled in when a travel mix-up prevented Luther from making a gig. Wooten impressed everyone, playing Luther’s riffs note-for-note without missing a beat. At San Quentin, then, marks the debut of Wooten, who would remain in Johnny’s band until his death.

While At San Quentin may be another prison album, it is different in feel from Folsom. First, it’s shorter, offering only 10 tracks (two of which are the same song played again!) compared to Folsom’s sixteen. Second, where Folsom did introduce one new tune (Flushed from the Bathroom of Your Heart), San Quentin, is loaded with new material, in fact it only offers two-and-a-half hits and one hymn familiar to listeners at the time. Third, there is a lot more audience interaction, with Cash winning his rough-cut audience over one story at a time.

This is the magic of Cash. Yes people love the hits – and I Walk the Line and Wreck of the Old 97 are played wonderfully – but more than anything, they love the man in all his complexity. And so it is that a man, hot of a gospel album, can come into a prison and, yes, sing a few hymns, but also sing tales of love, loss, and murder, and make you somehow feel like he’s just like everyone else in the room.

The set opens with an unreleased Bob Dylan tune that Cash would record a year later for the Little Fauss and Big Halsy movie soundtrack. Wanted Man is brief, catchy tune about a man on the lam, sure to resonate with the crowd. It’s wonderful to hear now guitarist Wooten flub a note on the opening riff, reminding us how nervous he must have been to step into Luther’s shoes. Cash then whips through a couple of hits, and brings out his wife, June Carter Cash, to sing a duet on John Sebastian’s Darlin’ Companion. It’s a cute tune they often sang but never recorded in the studio. It also shows how far Johnny was moving from the Nashville establishment, playing San Francisco hippie music!

Side one closes with Johnny pulling out his acoustic for a solo tune. As the band walks off-stage, Cash continues his conversation with the crowd. He pays tribute to Luther, he jokes about stealing songs, and then he introduces a new song about one of his visits to jail, Starkville City Jail. It’s a simple little story song that plays perfectly to the audience. Cash failed to record this one in the studio too, but you can’t help but sense that this was an offhand song written just for these boys. He asks for the lyric sheet to be brought to him, and he steals the melody from Statler Brother Lee DeWitt’s The Ten Commandments, recoded by Cash earlier in the year. It’s these little moments that make Cash so special.

Side two is even fiercer. He opens with a special tune he wrote just for the concert, San Quentin, which he calls out to the stone walls around him, “San Quentin may you rot and burn in hell.” The crowd loves the song so much, he plays it again. When’s the last time you saw a performer do that? Cash quips, “I kind of like it myself, now,” and then turns to a new lyric by comedian-poet Shel Silverstein that Cash put to music. A Boy Named Sue is absolutely ridiculous, but where his Boa Constrictor – on Everybody Loves a Nut – was a throwaway tune on a lightweight comedy album, this time round their collaboration makes for a poignant moment. It’s full of laughs, yet full of truth, the story of a hard-knocked boy facing up to his deadbeat father and finding an ounce of respect.

The crowd hollering, Cash then draws them into a moment of inspiration, singing the reverential Peace in the Valley with Carl Perkins and the Carter Family helping out. With a partial run through Folsom Prison Blues, Cash greets the prisoners still in their cell, and Johnny’s on his way. It’s a quick 35-minute album, but perfect from start to finish.  It is also a testament to the lean sound new producer Bob Johnston was helping Cash find, after years of over-production.


Notes on Subsequent Reissues:

  • At San Quentin (The Complete 1969 Concert) (Released 2000): This version was actually my introduction to the album, and it’s a fine one-disc version. Expanded to 18 tracks, it fills in many of the gaps. The songs are restored to their original running order, namely by moving Wanted Man to the middle of the set. Big River and I Still Miss Someone are revealed as Cash’s true openers, and an unreleased song, I Don’t Know Where I’m Bound” is added to the acoustic set. We’re also given five closing songs that were cut: Folsom Prison Blues-Ring of Fire-He Turned the Water Into Wine-Daddy Sang Bass-The Old Account Was Settled Long Ago. On the one hand we’re given a few more hits, but we’re also given a gospel set. Ring of Fire is a little strange with the trumpet parts sung by the Carters, but the gospel set is marvelous. He tells stories from Israel in a far more natural way than on The Holy Land, and you can imagine how these songs of spiritual longing and grace would have spoken to the men of San Quentin. Last, the closing number is unedited, adding energetic contributions from the whole band to medley that not only included the previously released Folsom, but also snippets of I Walk the Line, Ring of Fire, and the Rebel Johnny Yuma. If you’re going to buy one version of the album, this would be my pick.
  • At San Quentin (Legacy Edition) (Released 2006): The title of the first reissue is a bald-faced lie. One evening I stumbled across a documentary of Cash at San Quentin which included Orange Blossom Special, a tune not on “the Complete 1969 Concert.” Lo and behold, a few years later a 2-disc box set emerged which added even more tunes. Here then we have the actual “complete concert.” This version adds a Long Black Veil/Give My Love to Rose medley, his yet-unreleased single Blistered plus two more hits, Jackson and, of course, Orange Blossom Special. If you already have At Folsom Prison, then you’re really only missing a live version of Blistered. It’s a lively tune, a lot of fun, but not entirely essential. Elsewhere, we get the contributions of Carl Perkins, the Statler Brothers, and the Carter Family. Carl’s guitar shines on all three of his contributions – Blue Suede Shoes, Restless, and the fabulous instrumental Outside Looking In. As for the Statler Brothers, I’ve never been fond of their Southern Gospel style, so I usually skip their tunes, despite fine Carl’s fine guitar on Glen Campbell’s Less of Me. In my mind, though, it’s the Carters who shine, not only because of their stellar version of Wildwood Flower, but because of their interactions with the crowd. Cash had a formidable physique and could certainly hold his own, but imagine these beautiful women in their puffy skirts getting up in front of a roomful of sex-starved men. June, though, teases them and turns them to putty in her hands in two short minutes. Hearing her work the crowd is sheer delight. Ultimately, though, this edition is for completists only. It’s also packaged with that documentary I saw on TV that time, although it’s not something most people would watch more than once.

A note on censorship: Johnny cusses at times, and the original 10-track album employs bleeps. The two reissues are uncensored, so parents take note.

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