Johnny Cash at San Quentin Prison
"I remember walking through two sets of iron gates, and when I heard them close, I thought, 'Man, I hope we get back out of here,' " Johnny Cash's guitarist Bob Wootton recalls of his visit to San Quentin prison on February 24th, 1969. San Quentin was (and remains) California's oldest prison, as well as the largest death-row facility in the country.
That day, as Cash stood onstage in his usual black suit, he was greeted by a sight that might have frightened a different performer: 2,000 hollering, charged-up inmates. But Cash, who always felt a special connection to prisoners, seemed to realize the gravity of the moment. "John was very solemn that day," Wootton says. "We all were. It reminds you how much you take for granted. John connected with [the prisoners] in a way I never saw him connect with another audience."
Cash had played prisons before – including an earlier San Quentin gig and, famously, California's Folsom Prison. His show at San Quentin in 1969 was a full-on revue featuring the Carter Family, the Statler Brothers and Carl Perkins, and was shot for British TV. He performed with steely intensity, when he wasn't cracking jokes to his audience. In a sense, he became one of them.
Cash treated his set list more as a guide than as a hard-and-fast program, but ended up catering to the inmates with songs like "Starkville City Jail" and Bob Dylan's "Wanted Man." Cash also wrote a song for the occasion – the twangy, brooding "San Quentin." Its first line – "San Quentin, you've been livin' hell to me" – prompted hooting and cheering from the crowd. "One more time!" they called out. "All right," Cash said. "Hey, before we do it, though, if any of the guards are still speakin' to me, can I have a glass of water?" The crowd laughed, then booed the guard.
One of the show's standout moments was "A Boy Named Sue," which made its world premiere before everyone in the prison, including the band. "I didn't even know he had the song," drummer W.S. Holland says with a laugh. "Back then, we didn't have monitors and couldn't hear all that much onstage. John just started doing it. The first time I actually heard the song was [later] in the studio."
"A Boy Named Sue" became a Number One country single and crossed over to the pop charts, clearing a path for greater success, much to Cash's amusement. "I've always thought it was ironic that it was a prison concert, with me and the convicts getting along just as fellow rebels, outsiders and miscreants should," he wrote in his 1997 autobiography, "that pumped up my marketability to the point where ABC thought I was respectable enough to have a weekly network TV show." K.G.