By David Werther.
Johnny Cash, Johnny Cash at San Quentin (Legacy Edition, 2 CD + DVD, Sony, 2006); Personal File (Sony, 2006); and American V: A Hundred Highways (American Recordings, 2006).
2006 saw the third release of Johnny Cash at San Quentin. A ten-song version was released in 1969 when Cash had a big hit with the Shel Silverstein song “A Boy Named Sue.” In 2000, an eighteen-song version of the February 24th 1969 show became available. Now, finally, the entire concert is available with performances by the Carter Family, Carl Perkins and the Statler Brothers, and a one-hour British documentary with concert footage. The documentary presents Johnny Cash as the link between the mythical 19th century American western hero and the harsh reality of San Quentin prison.
The concert itself is beyond praise. It begins with Carl Perkin’s classic “Blue Suede Shoes.” The story goes that one of Cash’s Air Force buddies used to say “don’t step on my blue suede shoes” when he was dressed up to go out on the town. Cash gave the line to Carl Perkins (the two were Sun Records artists at the time) and Perkins turned it into a song. Perkins is followed by the Statler Brothers and then the Carter Family: Mother Maybelle, June, and sisters Helen and Anita. Among others, the Carter Family sings A.P. Carter’s classic “Wildwood Flower.” So, before Cash takes the stage the audience has already heard two of the most important popular songs of the twentieth century, in one case performed by the writer himself, and in the other with one of the members of the original Carter Family.
Cash’s performance begins with some of his chestnuts, “Big River,” “I Still Miss Someone,” and “I Walk the Line.” The response builds to a near riot when the inmates hear Cash sing (twice in a row) his new song “San Quentin.” This is followed up by the stellar Cash-Dylan composition “Wanted Man.” Soon thereafter, Cash calms things down with the comic relief of “A Boy Named Sue” and then begins to work in some gospel numbers, including his own “He Turned the Water Into Wine,” Carl Perkins’s “Daddy Sang Bass,” and “The Old Account Was Settled Long Ago.” The closing medley begins with “Folsom Prison Blues” and ends with “The Rebel-Johnny Yuma.” As Bono once put it, “Cash does not sing to the damned, he sings with the damned.”
Personal File is a treasure trove of forty-nine previously unreleased songs found in The House of Cash recording studio. This is just Cash, as one might imagine him, playing to a close group of friends—perhaps Billy and Ruth Graham during one of the times they stayed with Johnny and June. Most of the songs were recorded in 1973 and 1974. Half of the songs are gospel numbers. Some feature spoken introductions. In the 1990s, when Rick Rubin asked Cash what he wanted to do, Cash talked about solo recordings, perhaps entitled “Late and Alone.” Personal File reveals that Cash had a whole stash of such recordings long before he teamed up with Rick Rubin for the critically acclaimed American Recordings.
American V: A Hundred Highways finds Cash, as in the earlier recordings in the series, singing songs from a variety of writers. This time they include Larry Gatlin, Gordon Lightfoot, Rod McKuen, Bruce Springsteen, and others. The CD begins with Gatlin’s “Help Me,” a cry to God, quite fitting for Cash mourning the death of his wife June, and feeling his own strength waning. June’s passing also comes readily to mind when listening to the Hank Williams number “On the Evening Train” (‘they’re carrying her away . . . ‘). Cash’s final compositions, “Like the 309” and Springsteen’s “Farther on up the Road,” are also standouts. Perhaps the strongest recording in the collection is the traditional “God’s Gonna Cut You Down.” In his last days, Johnny Cash is assuring us that God has the last word.