"God, I've never seen anything like it," producer Bob Johnston recalls in the liner notes to Columbia/Legacy's deluxe reissue of Johnny Cash At San Quentin. "When Cash sang 'San Quentin, may you rot and burn in hell,' they were on the tables yelling. A lot of the guards were up on the runways with loaded guns, backing up the doors, and I'm backed up to the door with all these guards with guns, and I'm thinking, 'Man! I should have brought Tammy Wynette and George Jones - anybody but Johnny Cash!"
When Johnny Cash walked through the gates of the California State Penitentiary at San Quentin on February 24, 1969, he was undeniably one of country music's greatest stars. But he was also one of the edgiest. Since the beginning of his career on Sun Records in the late 1950s, Cash had spent the night in jail on seven separate occasions, including a run-in with Texas narcotic officers for smuggling amphetamines over the Mexican border. He was banned from the Grand Ole Opry in the early '60s after kicking out the footlights of the Ryman Auditorium in a drug-fuelled rage.
Simply put, Johnny Cash was a badass; a natural born rebel who drew from the energy and attitude of rock'n'roll along with classic country and western. He had been riling up incarcerated audiences in prison performances for nearly as long as he'd been playing music, and on that fateful day at San Quentin, as Johnston notes, very nearly incited a prison riot.
That rebellious attitude accounts for much of the enduring popularity of At San Quentin: a document of the 1969 show which, listened to in the right context, can hold the same amount of visceral impact as the Stooges' Metallic K.O. No, there aren't any bottles being thrown - just tin prison cups, in a moment one might recall from the brilliant if anachronistic "Folsom Prison" sequence in James Mangold's Walk the Line - but as on the previous year's "brother album" At Folsom Prison, the interplay between Cash and his "captive audience" (as well as the tension between Cash, the inmates, and the guards) is palpable.