Reviewed by Jeffrey B. Remz
Johnny Cash and prisons seems inexorably linked. One year prior to showing up with his musical entourage at San Quentin, Cal. prison, Cash, who never spent time in California prisons as rumored, played Folsom Prison, leading to a smash live album and years later a recounting of some of that show in the biopic "Walk the Line."
Here is a full-blown three-CD set - the 10-song originally released June 4, 1969 eventually stayed atop the charts for four weeks, the best selling of all Cash records - including 13 previously unreleased songs from the likes not only of Cash, but also Carl Perkins, who opens with his chestnut "Blue Suede Shoes," the Statler Brothers' "Flowers on the Wall," the Carter Family ("Wildwood Flower") and Johnny and June Carter Cash ("Jackson" and "Darlin' Companion") together.
The pleasant-sounding harmonies and music of the Statlers stands in sharp contrast to the other acts on the bill. All guests acquit themselves very well and participate in the closing songs as well, including "I Walk the Line," "Ring of Fire" and "The Rebel - Johnny Yuma."
The seeming intensity of the show comes through loud and clear. Cash preached to the choir, joking about having drugs in his bag and other contraband, wondering if the guards were still talking with him and joking "Aw, you don't really mean that now" to the inmates when Cash thanked the warden and guards to boos from the audience. Yet, he brings it right home to the inmates at one of America's toughest prisons with two takes of "San Quentin," a song he wrote specifically for the occasion, not exactly a cheery song, which is punctuated by the opening line "San Quentin, you've been living hell to me." "Folsom Prison Blues," "Wanted Man" and "Starkville City Jail" also were on the set list.
Cash is ably backed, of course, by the chicka-boom sound of the Tennessee Three.
To underscore the scene, an original 1969 documentary, "Johnny Cash in San Quentin," produced by Granada TV in England, includes scenes of the concert along with interviews with inmates and prison staff. Some of the documentary makes for compelling viewing.
Throughout the concert, an intimacy is apparent between performers and prisoners, which translates into one fine, intense album.