The Trilogy Complete
Johnny Cash, At The Carousel Ballroom, April 24th 1968 (24 September 2021; Sony Music, Owsley Stanley Foundation and Renew Records/BMG) is a previously unreleased live concert recorded in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury, just days before the release of the legendary At Folsom Prison, and around six months before At San Quentin. In this sense this release can be seen as adding a completely new dimension to the companion records, and finally completing a historic trilogy.
At The Carousel Ballroom captures Johnny Cash at his peak, joyfully interacting with his new wife June Carter, and supported by The Tennessee Three: guitarist Luther Perkins, drummer W.S. Holland and bassist Marshall Grant. As Cash introduces Cocaine Blues, which kicks off this live recording, he casually says: “here’s another song from the show we did at Folsom prison. It’s in the album that’s out next week.” Of course, at that moment the 700 people in the audience nor the sound engineer Owsley “Bear” Stanley could have had any idea about the impact that release was going to have.
“Bear” was a counter-culture character who was responsible for recording a large number of the Grateful Dead’s gigs, and his approach was very different to that employed at Folsom and San Quentin. Bear had refined his technique at the venue to ensure that it was as similar as possible to what was being heard, and of course the prisons were never intended to capture high-quality audio.
“Bear’s recording gives us an entirely different perspective on Johnny’s live sound during this creative peak, and is probably the closest to what it actually sounded like to be in the audience for a Johnny Cash show in 1968,” says Bear’s son, Starfinder Stanley. “There’s an idiosyncrasy to this recording; on every other Johnny Cash record you’ve ever heard, Johnny is centered in the stereo soundstage. But on this one, Johnny is entirely on the right channel, and the Tennessee Three are all on the left. That’s a bit weird until your brain adjusts, but you quickly realize that you’ve been set right between Johnny and his band.”
Perhaps due to the concert hall location, Cash’s 28-song set list was adapted to include two Bob Dylan covers, (Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright and One Too Many Mornings) and lesser-known songs from his own back catalogue such as The Ballad of Ira Hayes. Nonetheless, his prison performances are evident from the outset with renditions of Cocaine Blues, Long Black Veil and the blues chain-gang chant, Going to Memphis. “The song harkens back to a not-so-distant past of cruel, enforced labor and punishment in the American south. Cash’s career had been in a quiet period, and as he stands here, on the precipice of his greatest moments, ‘Going to Memphis’ reminds us of why he became, and continues to be, our most enduring musical conscience,” says Cash historian Mark Stielper.
The collection closes with a string of powerful classics including Ring of Fire, Don’t Take Your Guns to Town – on which one live version sees him apparently playing a Martin D 28 acoustic - and I Walk the Line.
“When you hear this, you feel like you are on the stage with the band,” says Starfinder. John Carter Cash – the only child of Johnny and June - agrees, describing At The Carousel Ballroom as “what I believe to be one of the most intimate and connected shows I have ever heard.”