Nineteen sixty-eight was the year Johnny Cash turned his life around. The year prior, Cash was in the throes of alcohol and drug addiction and amid a messy divorce from his first wife, Vivian Liberto. He and his four daughters were living in California, but he fled to Tennessee by himself, holing up in a cave on land he owned outside of Chattanooga. Cash found religion in that cave, gave his life to God, and emerged to find his soon-to-be fiancée, June Carter, waiting for him (she had been tipped off to his whereabouts by friends). Carter got him to Nashville to clean up, and in January 1968, Cash performed at Folsom State Prison in California.
The resulting live album, At Folsom Prison, would go on to sell more than 500,000 copies that year alone. But just prior to that album’s release in May, Cash played a show in San Francisco at the Carousel Ballroom, a 3,000-capacity venue operated by members of the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane. The Haight-Ashbury counterculture scene was going full tilt, and only 700 people showed up to the gig. But they saw a doozy of a show. Now, released for the first time, the forthcoming Bear’s Sonic Journals: Johnny Cash, at the Carousel Ballroom, April 24, 1968 captures the 28-song set. Cash is relaxed and chatty throughout, his boundless charisma overflowing while he takes requests and gives a shout out to folk singer Gordon Lightfoot, who was in the audience.
The live album serves as a missing middle piece between the Folsom Prison performance and the seminal 1969 Johnny Cash at San Quentin. While those two albums are urgent and raw, the Carousel show sounds spectacular. It was recorded by Owsley Stanley, aka Bear, the Dead’s famed audio engineer. For you audiophiles, Stanley recorded Cash and his backing band, the Tennessee Three, on two separate channels—Cash on the right, band on the left. It takes a few songs to get used to the mix, but the results are exquisite, as if you’re standing in between Cash and the band as the music envelops you.
Cash altered his normal set list for the Carousel show, adding a couple of Bob Dylan covers and dipping deeper into his catalog of songs that speak to those overlooked by society, like “The Ballad of Ira Hayes,” which Garden & Gun is premiering below. Written by Peter La Farge, the song tells the story of Hayes, a Pima Indian, who was one of the six Marines who planted the American flag on the island of Iwo Jima during World War II, immortalized in a photo that has become one of the most iconic American images of all time. Though Hayes was a celebrity when he returned from the war, fame was fleeting, and he tragically sunk into alcoholism and poverty before his death at age thirty-two.
“‘The Ballad of Ira Hayes’ is a song for a heroic outsider sung to a room of outsiders from the Sixties counterculture, demonstrating another of the many ways that Johnny Cash was able to connect with absolutely everyone he played for,” says Hawk Semins, executive producer of the Owsley Stanley Foundation. “As Bob Weir explains in the liner notes, Cash had an uncanny way of inhabiting the characters in his songs, and this unadorned performance, with no backing vocals or strings, is a perfect example of this particular gift. Hearing this classic performed in this way furthers the poignant message of the song.”
Listen to the track below. At the Carousel Ballroom will be released digitally and on CD on October 29, and as a double-LP vinyl set on December 3, and is available for preorder here.