Johnny Cash – At San Quentin

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist (part 2)

I once asked a local acquaintance in “the trades” for a referral for either (my memory is unreliable on this point) a plumber or an electrician. The man who appeared was a Russian immigrant, who performed the work with industry and alacrity. Checkbook in hand, I asked him who I should make the payment out to. Through a nearly impenetrable accent, he replied “my uncle.” It took me several seconds and a repeat of his answer for me to understand what he had said. I looked to my acquaintance for help. He offered none. I looked back, with some frustration, at the now-smiling Russian who clarified, with the pride of an international jokester, “Johnny Cash!” I should have written a check out to the Man in Black just to punish this idiot, but of course, that would have required me to write a second, proper check and the man would not have come away with any understanding that his joke was stupid, but rather with the belief that I was.

What I Think of This Album

Together with At Folsom Prison, this album gives me all the Johnny Cash I need, with some great live versions of some of his biggest hits. Here, we get “Big River”; “Wreck of the Old 97” (of course, the inspiration for the name of later band, the Old 97s); “I Walk the Line”; “Ring of Fire” (written by June Carter and Merle Kilgore); and “Daddy Sang Bass.”

Again produced by Bob Johnston, and this time accompanied by a Granada Television crew from England, this seems like a slicker affair than Folsom. June Carter is present again, as is supplemental guitarist Carl Perkins, and we also get Carter’s sisters – Anita and Helen – and her mother, Maybelle Carter (all four of whom had been in the Carter Sisters and a version of the Carter Family). Also, the Statler Brothers appeared and a new version of the Tennessee Three, with Bob Wootten taking the place of the recently-deceased Luther Perkins.

The original album had just nine songs, one of which was played twice, and somehow still was the only number 1 album of Cash’s career. It may have been helped by the massive popularity of “A Boy Named Sue,” written by Shel Silverstein. Hopelessly retrograde and toxically male, this song is silly at best, but at least Cash gives it some grit and energy. Overall, his performance is emotional and impassioned, even though the set is fairly downbeat and with a strong spiritual bent.

My version from 2000 doubles the tracks (though it is still not, contrary to the claim on the spine, the “complete concert”), and makes for a much better listening experience. Among the highlights are the closing medley, in which June, the Carter Sisters, the Statler Brothers, and Carl Perkins each get a moment to shine. Cash plays a Dylan cover (“Wanted Man,” with some lovely backing harmonies), and it’s gratifying to hear him call Dylan “the greatest writer of our time.”

He also reprises the “Greystone Chapel” trick, playing a song (“I Don’t Know Where I’m Bound”) written by one of the San Quentin inmates, Terry Cuddy, but with his own melody, as he could not read the sheet music Cuddy provided.

Fun facts:  you can hear Cash hum notes to himself before each verse on “I Walk the Line” to prepare for the key changes. Supposedly, the decision to play “A Boy Named Sue” was a surprise to the band and they improvised the music on the spot. Also, the famous image of Cash angrily giving his middle finger to a camera comes from this show, as he was frustrated at the television crew for blocking his view of the inmates.

Some of the liner notes to my version are from Merle Haggard, who was in the audience for Cash’s 1959 show at San Quentin. Also covered during this show was the Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Darlin’ Companion.” The Baseball Project used “Sue” as the template for their song, “A Boy Named Cy.”

Social Distortion covered “Ring of Fire” (as did Blondie), and not one but two ska bands built songs around the horn riff from the studio version: the Skatalites, on “Music Is My Occupation,” and the Ethiopians on their hit “Train to Skaville.” Even Clinic borrowed it for “T.K.” Anita Carter was actually the first artist to record “Ring of Fire.”

The Best Thing About This Album

I don’t know, I really like the medley.

Release Date

June, 1969 (original); 2000 (reissue)

The Cover Art

This is another great image from Jim Marshall, with the stippled halo, the blue cloud, and the bass head and neck jutting into the foreground.

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