When Johnny Cash rolled into the Carousel Ballroom for a one-off concert on April 24, 1968, he was not the larger-than-life “Man in Black” we think of today. A few weeks later he would release “At Folsom Prison,” and the next year he would grace TV sets across the country on his variety show. But on this day, Cash was playing to 700 San Francisco hippies, the house less than a third full. The audience was so sparse, he could take requests (including Gordon Lightfoot asking for “Forty Shades of Green”), as you can hear on the newly released archival recording of the show courtesy of the Owsley Stanley Foundation and BMG. Recorded by legendary Grateful Dead soundman Owsley “Bear” Stanley, it’s the latest of his Bear’s Sonic Journals to see the light of day.
“Putting things in context, he was about to release ‘At Folsom Prison’ and didn’t have his TV show yet. Nineteen sixty-seven was a bad year from him. He was working hard to kick his addiction and it was one of the few years he didn’t have a major hit,” says Hawk Semins of the Owsley Stanley Foundation. In fact, Semins says, the Carousel date was tacked on after the completion of a tour. It’s not listed in the travel documents saved by the Cash estate: “We don’t know how Johnny got to San Francisco.”
While the preceding dates featured The Carter Family and The Statler Brothers, for this show he was backed only by his new wife, June Carter Cash, and The Tennessee Three: Luther Perkins (electric guitar), Marshall Grant (bass) and W.S. Holland (drums). With the smaller crowd and sparse musical lineup, Cash deviated from his usual show of that era, giving the counterculture crowd a loose yet engaged performance.
“When we first auditioned the tapes for John Carter Cash, he said, ‘This is not The Johnny Cash Show,'” Semins shares. “It’s the first known recording of ‘One Too Many Mornings.’ There are two covers of Bob Dylan tunes [the other is ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright’], which I think was very much a nod to that audience. Things like ‘Bad News’ are pretty rare, and you can hear him sort of snorting and mugging for the crowd. He plays that role.”
“Johnny Cash at the Carousel Ballroom,” released Oct. 29 on CD, with vinyl coming Dec. 3, made the Billboard country charts. It’s difficult, though, to gauge what fans think of it, for a few reasons, Semins explains.
“It’s hard to know exactly who is a Johnny Cash fan, because he’s loved by everybody,” he says with a laugh. “We monitor all the social media that we can to see how people are digging the releases. Obviously, concerns were raised because Johnny Cash is in the left channel and The Tennessee Three is in the right, which I’ll argue for until my dying day. I think that decision is going to make it difficult for some Johnny Cash fans to listen to it, who aren’t used to listening to archival recordings.”
He explains that Stanley’s recordings were not intended for release, while “At Folsom Prison,” for example, was.
“Johnny had no idea that this was going to be released at the time, which gives you a different view of Johnny,” says Semins. “He knew that ‘Folsom Prison’ and ‘At San Quentin,’ they were recording it for an album. This was a little different.”
The 2-disc Cash set is the eighth Bear’s Sonic Journals release, following live recordings from Doc and Merle Watson, The Allman Brothers Band, Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady, New Riders of the Purple Sage, Commander Cody & His Lost Planet Airmen, Ali Akbar Khan with Indranil Bhattacharya and Zakir Hussain, and Tim Buckley. For the Cash release, Semins says, “there are a lot of very big partners, and everyone has played a wonderful role in support of this historically significant project.”
“This is a release that Owsley wanted in his lifetime,” Semins says. “He had preserved these tapes. Before we had formed the foundation, there had been discussions with Sony years ago about releasing it. It was nice to work with the Cash Trust to get this to the finish line, and the Cash Trust, really through John Carter Cash, this wouldn’t have happened if he didn’t see the importance of the project. It’s great, because he’s a producer and a talented guy and has a very creative mind and a keen insight.”
If there are any doubts that the younger Cash was on board, he writes in the liner notes, “With a smaller version of his band, only mother, W.S., Marshall, and Luther in support, Dad gave what I believe to be one of the most intimate and connected shows I have ever heard.”
Also contributing to the liner notes are Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead, Dave Schools of Widespread Panic and the foundation’s Semins, Starfinder Stanley and Pete Bell.
The next Bear’s Sonic Journals release will be another two-disc set in May, “which is going to be phenomenal,” Semens says, adding that the to-be-announced artist was one that Bear “really enjoyed.”