Classic Concerts: Johnny Cash at Glastonbury Festival 1994
Johnny Cash considered his UK appearance at Glastonbury Festival 1994 to be one of the great highlights of his musical career.
He wrote about the performance in his autobiography and was so moved by his reception that, according to the other performers who were there, tears were rolling down his face when he came off stage afterward.
I was fortunate enough to be in the audience that day and there were many of us in the crowd who were just as moved as Cash. I had been brought up with the songs of Johnny Cash as a child, thanks to my father and his record collection, and felt honored to be present at such an historic musical occasion.
Before going into Cash's performance in detail, however, it is important to look at what was happening in his career at the time.
Johnny Cash and Rick Rubin
In 1994 Johnny Cash was at the beginning of what would prove to be his last great creative period. After sinking into a rut during the 1980's, Cash got together with producer, Rick Rubin, who was more famous for his work with young hip-hop artists than with veteran Country singers at the time, in an attempt to bring a spark back to his flagging career. Although Cash was perceived as a music legend by many, he was dissatisfied with being seen as a recording artist who’s best work was behind him.
Rick Rubin’s idea was to strip down the Johnny Cash sound. He persuaded Cash to record an album that was effectively “unplugged”, just consisting of the minimal, and at times, stark sound of Cash’s voice and acoustic guitar. The songs chosen were also drawn from a wider mix of genres, rather than only Country music. The album, which was entitled “American Recordings”, became a critical, as well as commercial success. It also won Cash many new fans, especially among young people.
I really felt like it would be an exciting challenge to work with an established artist, or a legendary artist who might not be in the best place in his career at the moment. The first person who came to mind was Johnny, in terms of greatness and in terms of maybe, at that moment, not doing his best work.— Rick Rubin
Rick Rubin encouraged Johnny Cash to play to venues where he would reach a younger and less mainstream audience.
The Glastonbury Festival was ideal from this point of view. Having begun in 1970 as a small music festival attended by 1,500 people during the hippy era, by the mid-nineties Glastonbury had evolved into a huge event with 80,000 tickets sold.
It was now seen as a national institution and the highlight of the year for many music fans and people who saw themselves as members of British alternative culture, and some performances were now broadcast on television and radio. Other acts performing that year included: Rage Against the Machine, Radiohead, Pulp, Blur, Björk, and Oasis.
Despite being a veteran of touring and live shows, some of the other performers that day were surprised to see that Johnny Cash seemed anxious, unsure as to whether the large, predominantly young crowd would like his music.
Johnny Cash need not have worried about his reception from the Glastonbury crowd, however. His iconic introduction: “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash,” would be greeted by a huge roar from the crowd and as the band kicked straight into “Folsom Prison Blues”, everybody sensed that it was going to be an unforgettable performance.
The concert itself had begun slightly later than planned, due to technical problems with the sound on the main “Pyramid Stage” (named as such because it was literally built in the shape of a giant pyramid), which in 1994 had been hastily reconstructed after the previous stage burnt down a few weeks previously.
The delay wasn’t unusual for the Glastonbury festival - despite having experienced sound crews, there was no revolving stage, so there were often delays in the changeovers between bands.
Immediately before Cash came on, the crowd were treated to a talk by the Bishop of Bath and Wells, who received a lukewarm reception at first, but managed to win the mainly liberal crowd over with his castigation of the policies of the British Conservative Party and in particular, Margaret Thatcher, who had only recently lost power, plus he gave praise to Johnny Cash for his faith and compassionate approach to life.
Then came Cash. After “Folsom Prison Blues”, the audience were treated to “Get Rhythm”, “Sunday Morning Coming Down”, “Ring of Fire” and “I Guess Things Happen That Way”. We were now about a third of the way into the set and a clearly emotional Cash talked about coming to Glastonbury Festival, that he “Never expected such a reception” from the crowd, and that his intention was to “play tourist” and visit some of the historic sights of Glastonbury the following day (the ancient town has historical links with the legend of King Arthur and the search for the Holy Grail, as well as a beautiful old abbey.)
The band left the stage at this point and Cash sang four songs from the American Recordings album: “Delia’s Gone”, “The Beast in Me”, “Let the Train Blow the Whistle”, and “Bird on the Wire”, accompanied by just his acoustic guitar. The band then returned for a rendition of “Big River”, before a special treat for the audience as Johnny Cash’s wife, June came onstage to perform the classic duet, “Jackson” with him.
Johnny Cash and the band finished their set with “Orange Blossom Special” and then encored with “A Boy Named Sue”.
I remember there was an amusing incident where Cash went offstage, grabbed the Bishop of Bath and Wells (who had been watching the concert from the wings) and dragged him onstage to take a bow with him.
A Boy Named Sue - Johnny Cash Live at Glastonbury
The band line-up that day
Guitar: Bob Wootton
Drums: W. S. Holland
Bass: Dave Roe
Backing vocals and rhythm guitar: John Carter Cash
Vocals on Jackson and If I were a Carpenter: June Carter
© 2011 Paul Goodman