"Hello, I'm Johnny Cash."
When I met Johnny Cash while working in the record industry in Los Angeles during the early nineties, he actually uttered those famous words as he extended his hand to greet me. It's a story that to this day I never tire of telling. Because of all the entertainers I ever met during that time — and I met quite a few — none left me both starstruck and dumbstruck quite like the Man In Black did.
Johnny Cash was, and is, simply larger than life. And even as the somewhat seasoned music industry veteran I fancied myself to be at the time, there is something about being in the presence of a true icon like Johnny Cash that just sticks with you. It's something you never forget.
The first time I ever heard those famous four words though, was on a Saturday night parked in front of my parents television as a boy in 1969. That was when — during the short, but turbulent period from 1969 to 1971 — ABC's The Johnny Cash Show came into the living rooms of America. Cash's weekly variety show was in many ways a reassuring fixture during those otherwise troubled times. As weird as this may sound now, for that one hour on Saturday night, Johnny Cash was something that most of America could agree on.
The TV variety show was of course, at the time, a staple of network television. But never before had a variety show focused so exclusively on music.
While Ed Sullivan's variety show on CBS had been instrumental in breaking the likes of the Beatles and the Stones in America, you also had to suffer through an hour-long parade of jugglers, acrobats, and Topo Gigio, just to get to the payoff — usually during the last few minutes of the show. Sullivan's censors were also notorious for everything from refusing to shoot Elvis from the waist down, to forcing artists like the Rolling Stones to alter questionable song lyrics. Later versions of the variety show model like the Sonny & Cher Show also featured top music names, but emphasized sketch comedy bits.
Johnny Cash's show, on the other hand, was always focused on the music.
Cash at the time was of course one of the biggest names in country music, riding the success of albums like Live At Folsom Prison and a crossover pop and country smash in "A Boy Named Sue." Cash's show emphasized country music to be sure. Filmed every week at Nashville's historic Ryman Auditorium, the show regularly featured Cash's own extended musical family including the Tennessee Three, the Carter Family, and Carl Perkins. Cash also featured the biggest names in country music as guests on his show including everyone from Merle Haggard and George Jones, to Bill Monroe And His Blue Grass Boys.
But Johnny Cash also featured some of the biggest rock and pop music names of the day, including perhaps the biggest of them all on his very first show. Bob Dylan, who had just shocked the music world by releasing the country influenced Nashville Skyline album, rarely performed in public at the time. For the debut of The Johnny Cash Show, Dylan not only performed "I Threw It All Away," but also duetted (in an uncharacteristically clear voice he later attributed to giving up cigarettes) with Cash on "Girl From The North Country."
Among the other musical milestones from The Johnny Cash Show was a scorching guitar jam between Cash, Carl Perkins, and Eric Clapton — backed by Derek and The Dominos — on Perkins' "Matchbox." Clapton is clearly awed to be sandwiched between the other two men sharing center stage, while Cash is his usual gracious self assuring the young British guitar hot-shot that he has their respect. For his own part, Perkins plays like a house on fire.
This incredible two disc set from The Johnny Cash Show includes both of those performances, as well as over 60 others, clocking in at some four hours worth total. As with Dylan and Clapton, several of these are duets with Cash. There is also behind the scenes inside commentary, such as the story of how June Carter Cash pitched a fit when she learned that Linda Ronstadt showed up for her duet with Cash without wearing any panties. Saying "Not with my John she's not," June sent a stagehand to buy Ronstadt a pair of "bloomers", which she then ordered Ronstadt to put on.
Cash was also not afraid to take chances on this show, both in his choices for musical guests or in speaking his mind — whether it was talking candidly about drugs with a group of college students, or boldly professing his Christian faith. When Cash sang "Sunday Morning Comin' Down," by then up and coming songwriter Kris Kristofferson, he refused to change a lyric about being stoned, saying "there is nothing wrong with telling the truth." On another show, Cash featured folk music icon Pete Seeger, despite the singer's well known reputation for embracing leftist causes.
In addition to those I've already mentioned, the musical highlights of this DVD are simply too numerous to mention. In all, there are 66 live performances here, by a list of artists that reads like a who's who of American popular music of the late sixties and early seventies. Among them are Neil Young, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Joni Mitchell, Roy Orbison, Ray Charles, Neil Diamond, Loretta Lynn, Roy Clark, Jerry Lee Lewis, James Taylor, Chet Atkins, Louis Armstrong, and… well, you get it. From both a musical and historical perspective, this is amazing stuff.
This beautifully packaged two DVD set also features a booklet with rare photos and extensive liner notes. I cannot recommend it highly enough.