The Orange Blossom Special Hits the Haight

It’s the Carousel Ballroom and it’s Johnny Cash with the Tennessee Three.  Bear Owsley, the acid manufacturer and soundman extraordinaire, was on the soundboard.  The Carousel was a San Francisco music hall operated by a collective of local bands and (most likely) LSD and marijuana purveyors. Not long afterwards, Bill Graham would obtain the lease for the venue and rename it the Fillmore Auditorium.
Bear’s family cleaned up the recording and released it last summer. The disc is a historical artifact and the show is a unique phenomenon. In 1968, country music was still called country and western and Johnny Cash was on the outs with its mostly traditionalist and conservative establishment. As the next couple years of his career would prove, he didn’t seem to really give a good goddam about their opinion. Playing prisons and recording hit albums in them, Cash’s attitude translated well in a counterculture that was getting harassed and jailed by the police just for being who they were. For the country music establishment, playing the hippie cathedral that the Carousel was might have been more heretical than any prison.

Regarding prison, like always Cash’s setlist has several prison songs on it. It also includes some Bob Dylan and several originals. The Dylan selections represented Cash’s growing affinity for rock composers and the counterculture their songs wrote to and about. Within the year, he would record several songs with Dylan; their recording of “Girl From the North Country Fair” would begin a side of Dylan’s country album Nashville Skyline. His embrace of musicians like Dylan would be key to creating the musical bridge between the counterculture and country music in the next few years. Most folks who consider such things will tell you that it was the Byrds album Sweetheart of the Rodeo and Dylan’s Nashville Skyline that opened the bridge between the two cultures from the rock music side. These discs, which were accepted rather skeptically if at all by most rock fans, were followed by a rash of records featuring Nashville studio cats playing with rock bands and more and more rock bands playing country music.

For example, the Grateful Dead first performed Cash’s “Big River” on New Year’s Eve in 1971. Other country songs by Marty Robbins and Merle Haggard were either already part of the band’s repertoire or would soon become part of it. In an oft-told story, the Byrds would mutate once again after the Sweetheart of the Rodeo album, with Gram Parsons leaving the band along with Chris Hillman. Parsons and Hillman would dive deep into country music, while the Byrds continued to create their own share of what was being labeled country rock. As anyone who was listening to FM rock radio in the 1970s knows, the genre became quite popular. From Willie Nelson and the outlaw music scene in Texas to bands like Poco and performers like Linda Ronstadt, country rock made a fair amount of money for a few record labels. The genre would eventually move further into the country realm and by the late 1980s, it seemed like the country rock genre was mere history, like new wave eventually became.

However, booking Johnny Cash at the Carousel in 1968 was a bold move. Country musicians—even those who had a bit of hip credibility like Cash—played county fairs, not hippie dancehalls where LSD and marijuana was used fairly openly (for 1967 anyhow). Cash’s career was in a bit of a down spin prior to the tour this show was ostensibly part of. His problems with methamphetamine were public knowledge and a matter of concern to his fans, management and family. As it turned out, publicly announcing his affair with June Carter, divorcing his wife and marrying Carter of the Carter Family would mark the beginning of his redemption. Indeed, he publicly proclaimed his Christian rebirth in 1968. His amphetamine use would diminish, as would his drinking.

The recording is organic. One can hear a bit of crowd noise and onstage banter. The nature of the analog equipment in use is primitive by today’s standards. Indeed, it is primitive compared to what would exist at the venue then called the Fillmore West by 1970. The fact that Owsley was there to record it proves his commitment to the music. The fact that he saved the master tapes is even further proof. Indeed, Owsley’s archives feature recordings of more than 1300 shows at various Bay Area venues from 1967 up to the early 1970s, when he was imprisoned. This is the eighth release in this series which goes by the name of Bear’s Sonic Journeys. So far, all eight are recordings of shows that took place from 1968 to 1970. They include performances from the Allman Brothers, Tim Buckley, Ali Akhbar Khan, Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady, Doc and Merle Watson, New Riders of the Purple Sage, and Commander Cody and the Lost Planet Airmen.

Like the other releases, this Johnny Cash at the Carousel Ballroom captures a heartfelt moment from a particular moment in US music history. The disc’s producers—The Owsley Stanley Foundation—have put together a beautifully packaged CD with liner notes from guitarist Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead universe, Johnny and June Carter Cash’s son John, and Widespread Panic bassist Dave Schools. In a manner similar to how the Tennessee Three turned Johnny Cash’s songs into art that transcended their simplicity, the creators of this CD have turned this unusual performance into an unparalleled treasure.

Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. He has a new book, titled Nowhere Land: Journeys Through a Broken Nation coming out in Spring 2024.   He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: