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  1. It doesn’t really matter which Johnny Cash “Best Of” collection you get, they will all have something missing purely because his recording career spanned almost 50 years. This one covers the 21 years from 1955 to 1976 which means there is nothing from the ensuing 27 years up to his death in 2003. So what you don’t get on here is anything like “Hurt”, a song that introduced Johnny Cash to a whole new audience in the late 90’s/early 2000’s. This is a trail back through Johnny’s “early” history.

    I got my liking for Johnny Cash from my Dad. He had a couple of his records that I remember from when I was young. I’m guessing Dad liked the more radical songs of which there aren’t so many on here outside of “The Ballad Of Ira Hayes” (hey it’s a greatest hits cash in what did you expect ?). It would have been good for balance to include some of his more politically charged songs, something like “Singing’ In Talking’ Vietnam Blues” would have sat well. What you do get here is all the big hits (“Ring Over Fire”, “I Walk the Line”,  “A Boy Named Sue” etc.) but you do also get some lesser heralded gems like Johnny’s take on Kris Kristofferson’s incredible “Sunday Morning Coming Down” and his version of Dylan’s “Girl From The North Country”.

    Personal favourites for me would be “Don’t Take Your Guns To Town” a song America should maybe pay closer attention to right now, “The One On The Right Is On The Left” an hilarious look at a folk group with differing political views ending with the advice “Now this should be a lesson if you plan to start a folk group, Don't go mixin' politics with the folk songs of our land”, and “Jackson” sung in duet with his wife June Carter-Cash.

    I like that my Johnny Cash albums sit in my collection right beside the next artist we’ll be talking about as he was obviously a great influence upon him. I guess soon will come a time when Johnny Cash, like Elvis Presley and others before him, will hold no relevance for people. It’ll be a great shame but it happens. But what should never be forgotten is that Johnny Cash was as important to American music as Elvis or Gershwin or Sinatra or Motown or any of the greats, and this record goes a little way toward explaining why.

    Sunday Morning Coming Down - https://youtu.be/8_xd5jG3JTA

  2. Johnny Cash’s second live album and second recorded at a prison. San Quentin had been contacted at the same time as Folsom but hadn’t responded as quickly. This concert was filmed to be included in a documentary made by Granada TV in the UK about Johnny and his prison concerts. 

    It’s a shorter album than “Folsom Prison” (10 tracks against 16) but to my ears it’s a better set and Johnny is more engaged with the audience. For a shorter album it’s therefore strange that they put 2 versions of the same song on here, one after the other to start Side 2, but it does show what a good time singer and audience were having and I’m sure playing the newly written “San Quentin” in front of all those guards and wardens and watching the prisoners reaction to it gave Johnny a kick.

    Hey what are you guys drinking in those tall purple cups ? What is that rot gut stuff ?

    This album was recorded on 24 February 1969 so just a year or so after Folsom. In that time Cash’s long time guitar player Luther Perkins (that was Luther knocking out those chikka-boom guitar lines on Johnny’s greatest hits) had passed away and this is referred to in the set. Cash also mentions to the audience that the gig is being recorded for the UK (he says England) and him being told you gotta do this song and that song and how that’s not how it’s gonna be, he’s there for the prisoners and then asks for requests before bursting into “I Walk The Line”. The famous image of an angry-looking Cash giving the middle finger gesture to a camera comes from this performance. It happened when he got upset that the TV cameras were intruding between him and the audience.

    I’ve been here 3 times before. I think I understand a little bit how you feel about some things, it’s none of my business how you feel about some other things and I don’t give a damn how you feel about some other things

    June Cash joins him on “Darling Companion” along with Sun Records stablemate Carl Perkins. Side 2 has those two runs thru “San Quentin” with the prisoners cheering lustily at appropriate lines (“San Quentin you've been living hell to me”, “San Quentin I hate every inch of you” and “San Quentin may you rot and burn in hell” eliciting particularly enthusiastic responses), an absolutely rollicking “A Boy Named Sue” (the line “My name is Sue, how do you do? Now you gonna die" raising enough of a cheer to suggest there may be a few murderers in the crowd who particularly enjoyed their “trade” !), the gospel tune “Peace In The Valley” calms the atmosphere a little and everything wraps up with “Folsom Prison Blues”.

    There’s a lot of dialogue on this album. It gives you an inkling about the sort of person Johnny Cash was and definitely lets you know how the inmates felt about Johnny, and the steam being blown off by the audience adds to the whole atmosphere. Most reviews you’ll read put “At Folsom Prison” ahead of this one but to me this is much the better record. Hey, we’ve all got different ears right ?

    San Quentin - https://youtu.be/ARI42-dv1Mw

  3. Johnny Cash had a hit with the single “Folsom Prison Blues” in 1955 (#4 on the US Country charts). The song was written after he watched the film “Inside The Walls Of Folsom Prison” in 1953. Following the success of the single he would regularly receive letters from prisoners asking him to perform at their prisons. Cash was a great campaigner on all manner of issues (prisoners welfare, Native American rights, Civil rights). He was also something of a bad boy being not unfamiliar with the inside of a jail cell and had something of an affinity with the incarcerated. He performed his first prison concert in 1957 at Huntsville State Prison and continued to perform for prisoners regularly. This all added up to a desire to record a live album in a prison.

    In 1967 Cash’s career was on the slide following years of substance abuse, the hits had dried up. The man in charge of producing his output for Columbia Records changed that year. The new man was Bob Johnston, something of a maverick who had no problem with rocking the boat. Cash pitched the idea of recording a prison album and Johnston contacted both San Quentin and Folsom prisons to suggest the idea. Folsom was the first to respond.

    During rehearsals for the concert Cash and his band were visited by California Governor Ronald Reagan who expressed his encouragement. They were also attended by Reverend Floyd Gressett who counselled inmates at Folsom and helped setup the concert. One of the reasons for the rehearsals (something Cash didn’t indulge too often) was to learn the song "Greystone Chapel”. It had been written by Folsom inmate Glen Sherley (who was serving a sentence for armed robbery). Sherley recorded a version of the song, which he passed on to Reverend Gressett via the prison's recreation director and Cash had decided to put it in his set.

    The gigs happened on 13th January 1968 with Cash and his band, The Tennessee Three, playing two sets, one at 9.40am and a second at 12.40pm. The idea was they would have 2 sets to choose from if anything was unsatisfactory about either. He was expected to open the sets with “I Walk the Line” but instead opened with “Folsom Prison Blues” which must have delighted the prison guards and officials !

    The record opens with Cash’s famous intro of “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash” and straight into a rapturously received “Folsom Prison Blues”. JC is engaging all the way through, breaking into inappropriate giggles during a couple of the more serious songs, and obviously has an easy rapport with the prisoners. The set is a mix of tough songs like the opener and “Cocaine Blues, Gospel songs and some more sentimental tunes like “Send A Picture Of Mother” And “Give My Love To Rose” all set in those simple arrangements the Tennessee Three were so great at. All this is interrupted by announcements by the prison guards.

    It’s a wonderful document of an historic show (feels like I’ve said that before about something) but  honestly, I much prefer the “San Quentin” album, which many have said is inferior to this one (contrary, Moi ?). But hey! It’s Johnny Cash so it’s all good.

    Greystone Chapel - https://youtu.be/fGMVRoXelNs