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The Wages of Sin: 'Johnny Cash at San Quentin'

Johnny Cash embodied many personas as a performer: the bleeding-heart populist, the devout Christian, the devoted husband, the hard-bitten outlaw. But above all, he was obsessed with the wages of sin -- the consequences of abandoning God, of dishonoring others, of shooting a man in Reno just to watch him die. He sang colorfully about crimes committed, but his focus inevitably shifted to the punishing consequences.

It makes sense, then, that Cash was drawn to performing in prisons, where his love of the underdog could collide with his ability to articulate the cost of our indiscretions. After his landmark live album At Folsom Prison became an instant classic, Cash headlined a concert at San Quentin in February 1969, with the Carter Family, the Statler Brothers and Carl Perkins performing in support. Playing an assortment of his most prison-friendly material, Cash radiates credibility (though he never served time himself) as he commiserates with the inmates between songs: jeering the lousy conditions, teasing the film crew, even cracking a joke about prison sex. The words to "San Quentin" may play to the crowd -- "San Quentin, may you rot and burn in hell/May your walls fall, and may I live to tell" -- but there's no denying Cash's ability to put himself in others' shoes.

Newly reissued in a two-disc "Legacy Edition" -- which tacks on a scratchy DVD print of the British documentary chronicling the original event -- At San Quentin restores the openers' performances, in the process providing an even stronger sense of being there. Of course, given the mindset of the lost souls who surround the performers, that's a profoundly mixed blessing.

Stephen Thompson is an online music producer for NPR. If he ever goes on a prison tour, it will likely be as an inmate.

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Stephen Thompson
Stephen Thompson is a host, writer and reviewer for NPR Music, where he speaks into any microphone that will have him and appears as a frequent panelist and guest host on All Songs Considered. Thompson also co-hosts the daily NPR roundtable podcast Pop Culture Happy Hour, which he created with NPR's Linda Holmes in 2010. In 2008, he and Bob Boilen created the NPR Music video series Tiny Desk concerts, in which musicians perform at Boilen's desk. (To be more specific, Thompson had the idea, which took seconds, while Boilen created the series, which took years. Thompson will insist upon equal billing until the day he dies.)