Rediscovering The Johnny Cash Show
Let me first tell you something that may surprise long-time readers. I did not grow up in a Country music loving family. My parents’ extensive record collection was filled mostly with Classical records, soundtracks from the Broadway musicals they saw every chance they got and the obligatory Herb Alpert and Martin Denny exotica that was the standard soundtrack for cocktail parties in the Sixties. The only brushes we had with Country were two albums: Marty Robbins Sings Gunfighter Ballads and The Little Cowpoke’s Big Roundup of Songs. But that was really cowboy music, which we saw as something quite different from Country. Then one summer, it all changed. My father, a career military officer, was sent for a few months to some base in the South, maybe Texas, for some sort of short-term maneuvers or training thing. He came back with a suitcase full of Charlie Pride, Merle Haggard, Hank Williams and Johnny Cash albums. Things were never the same around our house again.
As my mother waged a losing battle to keep Burt Bacharach and Mozart front and center in the collection, my brother and I were increasingly influenced by the older kids in school. We were listening to Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan and Janis Joplin.
But for some reason, when Johnny Cash got a variety music show on ABC in the Summer of 1969, everyone in the family would gather round the set. I don’t think my brother and I even saw Cash as Country. Now that I’ve seen The Best of The Johnny Cash TV Show double DVD set that I ordered from Amazon, I see why. You can’t imagine the ecclectic line-up of guests Johnny managed to get up on Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium stage. You couldn’t do it today. He mixed old and new Country stars with artists of all types from Jazz great Louis Armstrong, Stevie Wonder, Joni Mitchell, Ray Charles, Neil Diamond and Creedence Clearwater Revival. Famously on his first show, he hosted Bob Dylan. Perhaps my favorite surprise is seeing Eric Clapton — with his then band Derek and the Dominos — wailing out an old R&B standard. Then Johnny joins them, brings in Carl Perkins, and one of the best all-time guitar jams commences. Surprisingly, the very young Eric Clapton looks completely starstruck and a little intimidated.
Another thing I’d forgotten or probably never even realized about the show, how controversial it was in subject matter. Johnny held forth on issues such as Indian rights and his Evangelical Christian beliefs. He demanded to include controversial folkie and Leftie Pete Seeger fresh off his infamous trip to North Vietnam and his anti-war bit on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. And as the war was raging, My Lai was uncovered and youth rebellion was at its height, he took part of the show to college campuses where he spoke honestly with students about drugs and politics. In fact, he wrote Man in Black after one of those campus forays.
How do I know that last little tid-bit? Because this 2-DVD set is filled with fascinating commentary by Johnny’s son, Kris Kristofferson, and some of the musicians, staff and the producer of the show. For instance, there’s that story told by the hairdresser and wardrobe person about when a very young Linda Ronstadt showed up for rehearsal without any underwear. I’ll only tell you that June Carter Cash took matters in hand. Get the DVD to learn the details.
Seriously, get this DVD set. One of the best things about it: you can skip through it chapter by chapter or song by song. So if you only want to show your Rocker or Blues loving friends how Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash wipe the floor with Eric Clapton, you can skip to that. Or you can replay that Linda Ronstadt song over and over and watch, as she struggles with an extremely skimpy mini-dress, and wonder if this was before or after June took over.
Okay, I know you don’t believe me about that Eric Clapton bit, so here it is:
Now go get this DVD set and rediscover The Man in Black yourself.
NOTE: Round these parts, we have a special version of one of Cash’s greatest hits:
I fell into a burning ring of terriers
I went down down down
And the terriers got scarier
And it burns burns burns
The ring of terriers
The ring of terriers