NASHVILLE SKYLINE: Johnny Cash: Always in Style

New San Quentin Boxed Set Reveals More of the Man in Black

(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/ Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)

So, is there enough Johnny Cash reissue stuff out in the marketplace already, or is there room for more? In the case of the new Columbia/Legacy boxed set, Johnny Cash at San Quentin, I say there’s room for more good stuff. This is a valuable addition to the Cash canon.

The significance of the original San Quentin album has always been its immediacy and its gritty reality. It tapped into some of the fundamentals of country music’s appeal, of sin and redemption, of violence and hope, of ultimate salvation and cleansing.

You probably already know that Cash’s two live prison albums almost didn’t happen because his record label, Columbia, didn’t think much of the notion of one its artists performing in a jailhouse. Then Cash finally prevailed in recording Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison in 1968, and it became a No. 1 hit. Nothing succeeds in Nashville like success, so he was able to go to San Quentin to record a concert in 1969. And that became an even bigger success, settling in for 20 weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard country albums chart, as opposed to the four weeks run that Folsom Prison enjoyed at the top of the chart. And it was also the CMA album of the year — just as his Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison had captured that same award the year prior.

It also yielded a hugely popular No. 1 hit, “A Boy Named Sue,” which won Grammy awards for Cash (for best country vocal) and songwriter Shel Silverstein (for best country song).

Interestingly, future country singer Merle Haggard had been a front-row spectator as an inmate at a Cash San Quentin concert in 1958. Cash did a number of prison concerts over the years, but the San Quentin album finally and fully captured the power and immediacy of what he was doing with what amounted to a prison outreach program.

I don’t know if this was the cleanest period of Cash’s life, but he was incredibly primed and on form in performing at San Quentin. That riveting hour-and-a-half audio concert is finally available in its entirety on this boxed set, which also includes a 60-minute Granada TV documentary on the San Quentin concert itself. Remember the famous photograph of Cash aggressively flipping the bird at the camera? Turns out he intended that for the Granada camera operators, who Cash felt were getting a little too intrusive. At any rate, they did their job very well. This is a valuable document for history.

There are also 13 previously-unreleased musical tracks included here, including Cash’s medley of “Long Black Veil/Give My Love to Rose,” “Orange Blossom Special,” “Jackson” (performed with June Carter Cash) and “Blistered.” And there are previously unreleased performances by rockabilly star Carl Perkins (“Blue Suede Shoes,” “Restless,” “The Outside Looking In”), the Carter Family (“The Last Thing on My Mind” and “Break My Mind”), the Statler Brothers (“Flowers on the Wall” and the Glen Campbell-penned “Less of Me”).

In retrospect, I think this represents the early Johnny Cash at his peak. San Quentin was released just as his network TV show was clicking with viewers, and he was obviously at ease with his audiences and supremely confident with his material.

What I especially like here is what you don’t see much in country performances anymore, which is Cash running pretty much free with whatever he feels like doing — and feeding off the audience’s energy to build on that. It’s a reckless abandon that’s still controlled within his outer boundaries, but it makes for an exhilarating ride.

And Cash was always able to walk and talk with people from every strata of life — including prison inmates. He leaves a good and lasting legacy.