Greatest live album: Johnny Cash, At San Quentin

Alex Walker revisits his favourite live album

Alex Walker
31st October 2021
For me, what makes a live album great is when they tell a story. A collection of some of the artists most recognisable songs, recorded at a particularly important gig can reveal a huge amount about that artist, their fan base, and where they are creatively in that moment. For these reasons, I have to choose the legacy edition of Johnny Cash’s 1969 release, At San Quentin.

The Man in Black was a visionary. At a time when country music was soft and sequined, Cash was hard and inscrutable. He sang southern spirituals, about prison and crime, substances and social evils. And just like him, this album is enigmatic. Is he playing to one of America’s most famous prisons out of altruistic motives, artistic motives, or because it’s good publicity? Nobody knows although I suspect a combination of the three.

Cash is as excellent as always. This is certainly his best rendition of A Boy Named Sue, and the final medley track with the Carter family is a brilliant exploration of his music. However, don’t listen to this album just because it’s Cash at his best.

Unlike most live albums, the crowd really adds something to this album. The sound of prisoners shouting, clapping, enjoying themselves for once in what would have been a hard life is both disquieting and heart-warming. Nowhere is this more powerful than when Cash’s wife, June Carter, tells the audience that ‘This is as sexy as I’m gonna get’ before describing her new revealing dress, and remarking that she doesn’t know whether to ‘bend over, sit down, stoop or squat’. Like this rather suggestive soliloquy, the album is joyous, jubilant, and slightly racy. It’s wholesome fun, and a very entertaining listen.

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AUTHOR: Alex Walker
An English Literature student, who enjoys playing devils advocate. Interested in sharing my vacuous opinion on Film, TV, Music, Sports, and Political history. Find me on Facebook if you want write a piece together, or just want to tell me my articles are rubbish somewhere Zuckerberg can hear. Twitter, @TheAlexJLWalker

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