Saturday, October 24, 2009

Johnny Cash's 'San Quentin' Guitar

Speechless and humbled and honored.
That was my reaction recently when I stumbled across the guitar that Johnny Cash played during his historic 1969 concert at San Quentin Prison. Part of my surprise was that it was totally unexpected. I wasn’t at the Country Music Hall of Fame, or even the Cash Museum in Hendersonville, Tennessee. At this particular venue, I was caught off guard.
If you recall the movie Walk the Line, Cash’s Folsom Prison concert revived his career after drug abuse and personal problems. Certainly the song “Folsom Prison Blues” is much better than “San Quentin,” which he said he penned 24 hours before that concert. In fact, you can easily find the Folsom concert CD at Wal-Mart or Best Buy, while I had to order “At San Quentin” online to get a copy. (My LP was worn out decades ago.)
But I’ve always been more partial to “At San Quentin.” One reason it caught my attention while still in high school was the profanity. At that time, most people knew Johnny Cash as a network musical/variety show star who sang gospel with Billy Graham. “At San Quentin” showed the “real” Cash – the anger, the anti-establishment attitude, the darker side ABC kept hidden. On the album and the British documentary, you felt what Cash was really like on stage. You heard (or saw) him antagonizing authority figures from cameramen to prison guards. He performed the songs he wanted to do, not what the TV producers told him to sing. He did “A Boy Named Sue” uncensored and cursed San Quentin prison in its namesake song. (He got such a great response from the prisoners to that song, he sang it twice – and put it on the album twice back-to-back, another middle finger at Columbia Records.) From start to finish, “At San Quentin” was authentic Cash – a voice seldom heard again until the “American” recordings just before his death. When he sings ballsy ballads like “Sam Hall” and “Tear Stained Letter” on “American IV”, the words “You can all go straight to hell” echo “At San Quentin.”
So, when our tour guide pointed to a beat-up wooden guitar in a glass display case and said, “That’s the guitar Johnny Cash played at San Quentin,” I was awe-stuck. It wasn’t just because it was a Cash guitar – I’ve seen the cool one over the door at Stages in Nashville, signed by the Highwaymen – Johnny, Willie, Waylon and Kris. It’s because it was THE San Quentin guitar.
The guide showed my group how the guitar was modified so the “Man in Black” could still play it despite the arthritis that had already damaged since fingers in the 1960s. He talked about the concert and Cash’s life. He asked if we knew who was in the audience at San Quentin, and I alone knew the answer: Merle Haggard.
At first I wondered why the “San Quentin” guitar was here – at the Hard Rock CafĂ© in Gatlinburg. But it makes sense this one hangs next to guitars from Pete Townsend and Jimmy Page. Cash started in rock ‘n roll with Elvis and Jerry Lee and the others. While he eventually settled into a conventional country and gospel groove, his attitude remained firmly grounded in rock.
In Nashville, the “San Quentin” guitar would be lost in the crowd of artifacts. But it both stands out and belongs at the Hard Rock.

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