Once again, I’m focusing on a single outstanding record; this time it’s a 1968 Johnny Cash live date in San Francisco that never saw the light of day prior to this release. Making this album even more noteworthy is that it was recorded by Owsley “Bear” Stanley — yes, that “Bear,” who helped create the Grateful Dead’s legendary “Wall of Sound” concert sound system. Bear was essentially a de facto member of the Dead, and recorded most of the band’s classic live albums throughout the Sixties and Seventies, along with many other notable concerts in the Bay Area. The performance he recorded for this album, Johnny Cash at the Carousel Ballroom, came only months following Cash’s soon-to-become legendary live performance at Folsom Prison.
I grew up in a small North Georgia village nestled in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains; its population in the Seventies was around 300 people. And way out in the boonies; television reception was virtually nil, and I could only pick up two AM radio stations on my transistor radio. Those stations broadcast mostly news and farm reports, along with good old country music that often featured healthy doses of Johnny Cash. This was, after all, farm country, and most of my nearby relatives were farmers who loved the music of the Man In Black. I rarely remember visiting any of my uncles’ homes back in the day when Johnny or June Carter Cash (and occasionally Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton) weren’t playing in the background or pouring out of the open window of a pickup truck.
Once a week, we’d head down to Gainesville, the “Queen City of the Mountains,” to shop. Gainesville’s population was about 25,000 people, so there was a plethora of available goods, especially compared to the tiny burg I spent most of my time in. By the time I reached ten years old, I’d found ways to make a few bucks here and there, and on one of these trips into town, had decided to buy my first LP record album, which was definitely going to be the just-released Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison. “Folsom Prison Blues” was all over the AM airwaves in mid-1968, and when we arrived at Mason’s Department Store (kind of a scaled-back, small-town version of a WalMart), I was intently focused on picking up Johnny’s new record. I made a beeline for the record department, which was shockingly large and diverse for such a relatively small town. And while I immediately scoped out the Folsom Prison LP, I also took some time to browse about – it was my very first time there and I was overwhelmed by the selection. When my mom arrived to collect me about an hour later, my resolve had wavered. She insisted that we needed to leave now, and I hastily changed my mind, grabbing a nearby copy of Meet The Beatles. My musical direction changed forever, but I’ve always maintained an appreciation for Johnny Cash throughout my life.
The Man In Black Makes a Comeback
Johnny Cash hadn’t had a hit record since 1964’s “Understand Your Man” broke into the Top 40. Cash had developed an increasing dependence on drugs, and his popularity – along with his record sales – had plummeted as his world seemingly fell apart around him. Johnny Cash wrote himself a letter at the end of each year of his life, where he detailed his personal accomplishments and downfalls, and he counted 1967 as definitely having been the worst year of his entire life. When he met June Carter and eventually got clean, he had regained his enthusiasm for life and for his music. And he began to pitch an idea about making a live prison recording to the record execs at Columbia, who (not surprisingly) were less than enthusiastic.
Cash’s bad-boy image had made quite the impression on inmates across the country, who plied him with letters that begged him to come play a live show for them. He’d already played numerous prison shows over the last decade, but never with the idea of recording one for commercial release. A 1967 shake-up in the country music division of Columbia Records found Bob Johnston (Bob Dylan’s producer) in charge, and he quickly embraced Cash’s vision for a live album. Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison was recorded in January and released in May 1968; it soon became a smash hit for him, reaching the No. 1 position on the country charts and No. 15 on the mainstream album charts. And the lead single, “Folsom Prison Blues,” cracked the top 40 – Johnny Cash was again at the top of his game. All of this was particularly astonishing, because the live album was given virtually zero marketing support from the record label, yet still became a commercial and critical triumph.
When the opportunity came to play the San Francisco date, all of the above was still weeks away from happening, and Johnny Cash was often filled with doubt. He was ebullient over his recent marriage to June Carter, and he brought her along for the show at a venue that was more frequently ensconced in flower power than wildwood flowers. The setting was the Carousel Ballroom, which was a joint collective venture between the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Quicksilver Messenger Service, and Big Brother and the Holding Company. The Carousel served as a social and musical experiment for the psychedelia of the time, and would later gain a greater measure of fame when promoter Bill Graham moved his west-coast concerts to the ballroom and re-christened it the Fillmore West.
Cash’s 1968 concert came at the peak of hippiedom in the Haight-Ashbury era, and although the Carousel seated approximately 3,000 patrons, most accounts estimate that only about 700 were in attendance, and they were mostly hippies who probably had a scant knowledge of Johnny Cash’s music. The show would feature Johnny’s classic backing band, the Tennessee Three, featuring guitarist Luther Perkins, bassist Marshall Grant, and drummer W.S. Holland. In addition to sets from Cash and his band, June Carter Cash would also offer a medley of her traditional tunes that she’d sung with the Carter Family, and would later join Johnny for duets on many of his songs. The crowd, though relatively small, was enthusiastic, frequently shouting out requests, which Johnny obliged, regularly departing from his usual set list. Cash played off their eagerness for his music with a show filled with a newfound joyfulness; whether he knew it or not, he was standing on the cusp of greatness, along with a complete revitalization of his career.
The success that Cash would enjoy only weeks later with Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison would have a long lasting impact on most of his future recordings for the remainder of his career. Record label executives would insist that Cash’s records needed to be production-heavy, multi-layered affairs to help make them more commercially viable. That overly-produced approach is in stark contrast to “Bear” Stanley’s classic verité style for the Carousel Ballroom date, where his recording focuses on a more natural presentation with enhanced aural realism. Bear’s recording here is part of what Stanley called “Bear’s Sonic Journals,” and was simply put down on tape to help him refine his recording techniques. And as part of his own personal record, with no intent of ever releasing the set commercially.
Johnny Cash at the Carousel Ballroom
This new live set captures the man in black at the height of his powers, an artist who was beginning to regain his former swagger. The recording features a set list that’s less formalized than those employed on his more well-known live albums, and it’s obvious from listening to Johnny Cash at the Carousel Ballroom that he took cues from the audience and improvised on the spot. Thirty years after the event, Bear Stanley would stumble upon the tapes again, immediately realizing that it was a landmark recording that greatly deserved to reach a wider audience. Thus began a journey that took another twenty years (and ten years after Bear’s untimely death) for the Carousel Ballroom tapes to finally come within reach of the ears of Johnny Cash fans everywhere. Bear’s son, Starfinder Stanley, has worked very hard to preserve his father’s legacy, and he made the following remarks in the liner notes for the new release about his dad, and about the Carousel Ballroom recordings:
“When we began researching these reels, we bought old copies of Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison and Johnny Cash at San Quentin to compare the set lists, but what jumped out at us was the difference in the sound of the production of these three live albums. Folsom is one of the greatest live albums of all time, but it sounds like what it is: a prison cafeteria. It doesn’t sound anything like a studio, which is part of its charm and its power. No one expected it to be a hit, and so its production brilliantly captures the raw relationship between Johnny and the outsiders he loved. After Folsom hit big, the label had high expectations for San Quentin, so they rolled in their best equipment. The recording quality is beautiful, but with that production comes the editorial voice of the times, and so, for example, they accentuate Johnny’s trademark bass with extra depth.
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. That’s because Bear was the house sound man at the Carousel, where he’d built the entire sound system and which served as his sonic laboratory of sorts. Bear’s tapes were the way he documented his tinkering so he could review the results, and so he called them his “sonic journals.” His goal was simply to capture the sound of the room as precisely as possible, which he did by carefully choosing and placing the mics, and by using the highest-quality equipment. And so what we’re left with is the uncanny experience of feeling like we’re up on stage in between Johnny, June, and the Tennessee Three.
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 left channel, and the Tennessee Three are all on the right. That’s a bit weird until your brain adjusts, but you quickly realize that you’ve been set right between Johnny and his band…Johnny is crystal clear; the Tennessee Three has a sonic spotlight thrown on them, sounding like Luther Perkins is plucking a high tension electrical wire; and you get this 3-D effect that they’re in the room with you. We experimented with moving Johnny back to center, but every time we did, either Luther or Johnny turned muddy, and we came to understand that there was a distinct method to Bear’s madness. Far better to stand on the stage amongst the musicians than to chase a more conventional headphone mix that loses some of the magic of that intimate night. This was part of Bear’s special genius, and the way he mic’d the stage without splitting the feeds from the stereo pairs of mics, bringing instead different areas of the stage onto the two different channels of his two track recorder to preserve sonic separation and clarity – ahead of his time in 1968.”
Owsley “Bear” Stanley is without a doubt one of the most interesting peripheral characters in the history of recorded music, and Bear had an outlaw background that was quite possibly even more colorful than Johnny Cash’s own. Bear had been a rocket engineer for the Air Force, a professional ballet dancer(!), and also worked as a chemist who was one of the first and principal producers of LSD, especially in the Bay Area. Bear was at the epicenter of California’s counterculture scene (he supplied acid to everyone from Ken Kesey to the Beatles), and his acid-laced experiences informed not only his approach to life, but also his non-traditional approach to acoustics and sound recordings.
Starfinder Stanley continued: “My dad experienced synesthesia while under the effects of LSD. His brain was taking in the sound that was coming through his ears and interpreting it with his visual cortex. Hallucinating the visuals of the sound moving through the room, and it didn’t look like what he expected. He paid close attention and realized that your brain can process sound as long as it’s emanating from a contiguous source rather than a split source. That’s why he moved toward the Wall of Sound. Every speaker in that wall was dedicated to a specific thing. For example, when he did sound for the Grateful Dead, each string of Phil Lesh’s bass had its own speaker. So each speaker is doing less. Since it only has one job to do, it can do it better.”
The music opens with Johnny’s rendition of “Cocaine Blues,” which he’d also played at the Folsom Prison date, and he references the new record in his introduction to the song. Johnny had the uncanny ability to fuse his own range of life experiences into the songs he sang and the stories he told, and this helped him connect to audiences with a level of intimacy that many other performers could rarely approach. Johnny’s knack for great storytelling continues with gripping offerings of traditionals like “The Long Black Veil” and “Orange Blossom Special,” then he offers a compelling spoken intro that transitions into the train-riding classic “Going To Memphis.” He then gives a poignant rendering of the classic World War II story of a native American war hero fallen on hard times in “The Ballad of Ira Hayes.” The somber mood rapidly changes to one of joy that gets the audience on their feet with a hard-rolling version of another train song, Cash’s immensely popular “Rock Island Line.”
Johnny plays a pair of Bob Dylan songs back-to-back, “One Too Many Mornings” and “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right.” Cash and Dylan had been mutual admirers and friends for years, and only a year following the Carousel Ballroom date, Dylan invited Johnny to make a guest appearance on his own comeback album, 1969’s Nashville Skyline. Not long after, Cash’s sudden change in fortunes would find him hosting the nationally broadcast The Johnny Cash Show, where he returned the favor by having Dylan make a guest appearance on the very first show. More traditionals follow; a particularly tender version of “Green, Green Grass of Home” shows Johnny at his most moving, and the rowdy, raucous “Bad News” finds him laughing out loud on stage. The audience shares his enthusiasm, and gives a big cheer when Johnny introduces “the little wife,” June Carter Cash, who joins him in a rousing rendition of Cash’s classic “Jackson.”
Johnny then takes a break, and June belts out a really compelling take of her original, “Tall Lover Man,” which ends all too quickly with a rapid fade out mid-song – I’m guessing that Bear’s tape ran out, requiring the unexpected exit. He quickly recovers, however, capturing a medley of June’s songs that were made famous by the Carter Family; once again, her performances are absolutely phenomenal, and it’s unfortunate that she chose to only give snippets of classic songs like “Wildwood Flower,” “Foggy Mountain Top,” “This Land Is Your Land,” and “Wabash Cannonball.” Johnny rejoins her on stage with a fabulous rendition of Carl Perkins’ “Long Legged Guitar Pickin’ Man,” when he and June literally scream the call-and-response lyrics at each other; the audience really goes berserk! Johnny then tells the crowd that they only have time for a couple of more songs, and then pounds out hits like “Ring of Fire,” “Big River,” and the Tennessee Three give a stirring instrumental lead-in to “Don’t Bring Your Guns to Town.” The dour mood of the song quickly shifts as Johnny launches into a rapid-fire offering of his all-time classic “I Walk The Line,” and a memorable concert comes to a close with another extended instrumental outro from the Tennessee Three.
I originally started the listening sessions for this album with a PS Audio amplifier and Magneplanar LRS loudspeaker setup. The Magneplanar LRS produces a shockingly wide and deep soundstage that enhances almost everything that plays over it with a sort of hyper-realism that just has to be experienced to be believed. But as great as this system is, I noticed something out of sorts right out of the gate. Johnny Cash at the Carousel Ballroom is definitely one of those discs where a more traditional audio setup is called for to properly experience the maximum effect of Bear’s recording. I swapped out the PS Audio/Magneplanar equipment for Zu Audio Omen loudspeakers and a PrimaLuna EVO 300 tube integrated amplifier. I have the toe-in of the speakers set up so that the tweeters are pointed to overlap each of my shoulders at my listening position – the right tweeter points to my left shoulder, and the left tweeter points to my right shoulder. This creates a broad soundstage with superb imaging and a bit more center channel presence with most material. The Zu loudspeakers employ a dynamic driver configuration from a 1930s Harry Olson design, and that, in combination with the tube amplification, definitely provided a more authentic and organic musical presentation. This setup was perfect for Johnny, June, and the Tennessee Three, and everything simply snapped into place aurally!
I listen to a lot of Fifties and Sixties classic jazz recordings, which often tend to be very hard “left-to-right” in nature, with sometimes very little center fill in the recordings. So the setup chosen by Bear Owsley for Johnny Cash at the Carousel Ballroom didn’t strike me as particularly unusual sounding at all, and was actually quite typical for the period. And I totally agree that (perhaps after a couple of adult beverages) it’s very easy to suspend your disbelief, and allow your brain to aurally recreate the on-stage arrangement of the players before you. Bear felt his job was to amplify the music so it sounded equally good in every seat in the ballroom; Starfinder Stanley is correct – this is a truly great-sounding recording!
The street date for Johnny Cash at the Carousel Ballroom got pushed back during the manufacturing process; the album was originally supposed to arrive in record stores mid-September, and now it’s been rescheduled for October 29. Which means that it still won’t actually be available (except for pre-order) for about a week after this review is published. Because of delays with the physical copies, only digital assets were available to reviewers prior to the release. So I can’t really comment on the compact discs or LPs, or their respective packaging, all of which lately has been top-notch for Sony/Legacy releases.
The accompanying booklet includes informative and entertaining new essays from Starfinder Stanley, Johnny and June’s son John Carter Cash, Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead, and Dave Schools of Widespread Panic. John Carter Cash calls At The Carousel Ballroom “A masterpiece…Dad gave what I believe to be one of the most intimate and connected shows I have ever heard.” Hawk Semins, executive producer at the Owsley Stanley Foundation, said he’d “heard a lot of tapes of Carousel shows where the audience is silent. This audience is fully embracing the performance, calling out requests, spontaneously cheering. It’s all of these historical textures and recognition of the moment that makes me gravitate towards this release as something truly special…Johnny Cash’s brilliance is in part that he connected with everybody.”
Johnny Cash fans will definitely want to connect with this outstanding new release, whether by LP, CD, or digitally streaming via any of the major online outlets like Tidal or Qobuz. Regardless, this is a remarkable record that’s so much more than just an archival or historical release, and is not to be missed – Johnny Cash at the Carousel Ballroom comes very highly recommended!
Sony/Legacy/BMG Recordings, CD/2 LPs (download/streaming from, Amazon, Tidal, Qobuz, Spotify, Deezer).
Images supplied by Shorefire Media, Sony/Legacy, and the Owsley Stanley Foundation.