Prime time

Heeere’s . . . Johnny Cash!
By TED DROZDOWSKI  |  October 23, 2007


VIDEO: Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan on The Johnny Cash Show

To many political conservatives during the Vietnam War, championing the music of Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, and Joni Mitchell was the equivalent of French-kissing Chairman Mao. So what pinko would give those subversives linked to the anti-war movement exposure on national prime-time television?

His name was Johnny Cash.

Dylan (in his national network TV debut) and Mitchell were guests on ABC’s first episode of The Johnny Cash Show, June 7, 1969 — the year Nixon ordered the secret bombing of Cambodia. Sure, the network’s censors beefed, and they did so again when Cash sang “I’m wishing Lord that I was stoned” as he performed Kris Kristofferson’s “Sunday Morning Coming Down” on a later episode. And when he discussed his own drug abuse on the air with students from Vanderbilt University. And when he spoke on camera against the war’s toll. But one of the beautiful things abouit Cash is that he always did what he believed was right, whether in service of a song, humanity, or God.

What’s more, he believed in diversity, personally and as a platform in his own brand of patriotism. That’s obvious in the exceptional two-DVD set The Best of the Johnny Cash TV Show (Columbia/Legacy).

Footage from Cash’s variety program has been a lost treasure of country music’s golden era. For those who grew up with Cash and watched his three-season run, this collection validates great musical memories. For fans who discovered him through his later “American” recordings, when he was a wizened statesmen of cool, or backtracked to his Sun-label days, when he was a young ass kicker co-inventing rock and roll, the Johnny Cash TV Show provides a more complete understanding of the Man in Black’s character.

Cash’s hand-picked musical guest list crossed lines of color, generation, and style. So this set gathers performances by Stevie Wonder, Derek and the Dominoes (who jam with Cash’s friend and bandmate Carl Perkins), Louis Armstrong (who duets with Cash on a tune Armstrong recorded with country forefather Jimmie Rodgers in 1930), Ray Charles, Neil Diamond, Merle Haggard, Chet Atkins, George Jones, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Jerry Lee Lewis, Linda Ronstadt, Neil Young (delivering an aching “Needle and the Damage Done”), Hank Williams Jr., Loretta Lynn, Roy Orbison, Bill Monroe, James Taylor, and many others.

A year after Martin Luther King Jr. was slain, Cash’s duets with Armstrong and Charles were affirmations of brotherhood. The show was taped at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium, then home to the Grand Ole Opry, so he was bringing R&B and rock into the mother church of country music. He also glorified country’s roots by regularly featuring his mother-in-law, Maybelle Carter of the pioneering Carter Family, and the old-time comedy of his wife June Carter Cash and Homer & Jethro.

Cash did more on TV than fashion a beautiful union of people and musical cultures that mirrored his vision of melting-pot America. He spoke his mind, and you’ll find several of his soliloquies about the plight of Native Americans and of the poor within the DVDs’ four hours — which, of course, also include such Cash classics as “Folsom Prison Blues,” “Ring of Fire,” and “A Boy Named Sue.”

Commentary by his friend Kristofferson, his godson Hank Williams Jr., and his son John Carter Cash help thread the culled performances together. But Cash, with his absolute control over this show, gave it an enduring perspective that speaks for itself.

  Topics: Music Features , Entertainment, Music, Vanderbilt University,  More more >
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