Between 1969 and 1971, Johnny Cash pulled off one of the more impressive runs in pop culture — a string of hit singles including a top 5 smash on both the country and the pop charts (okay, it was ”A Boy Named Sue”) — plus hosted an ABC variety show distinguished by its diversity and boldness. As the four-hour, 66-performance compilation of The Best of the Johnny Cash TV Show attests, Cash sparked connections between music formats, politics, and American history that remain unique.
The show’s June 7, 1969, debut set the tone — both uniting and polarizing. It seems unlikely that people who tuned in to see Johnny josh with comedian (and future novelist) Fannie Flagg were also yearning to see Bob Dylan, but Cash showcased the post-John Wesley Harding crooner for two songs. Duetting on Dylan’s ”Girl From the North Country,” Cash threw down a challenge: Do you want to watch an exciting mix of country, folk, and rock, or would you rather watch, say, a stiff Chad Everett on CBS’ banal doctor show Medical Center?
I’d argue that Cash’s greatest asset — more valuable than his limited voice and his music’s circumscribed rhythms — was his taste. During the same time period as his TV series, Loretta Lynn, George Jones, and Dolly Parton were all making country music arguably superior to his. But Cash was the only star with the moxie to book artists as various as Neil Young, Louis Armstrong, and Eric Clapton’s Derek & the Dominos to prove to viewers that they were all working the same terrain — that a Canadian, a jazz musician, and a British guitar god, respectively, were each mining indigenous American music, gloriously.
There are stunning musical moments on these extras-free DVDs: Clapton and Bobby Whitlock howling out ”It’s Too Late”; a sober George Jones gulping uproariously through ”White Lightning”; Neil Young offering a stark solo version of ”The Needle and the Damage Done.” The nonmusical moments are equally stunning, such as when Hank Williams Jr. presents Cash with an unexpected gift — a pearl-handled pistol he’d kept hidden under his jacket until he was on camera. Johnny accepts with easy grace, twirling it like a gun-fighter. If that occurred today, fussbudgets would be calling for the FCC to shut ABC down.
Cash subverted subtly, by, for example, having Stevie Wonder sing his quietly firm song about race relations, ”Heaven Help Us All.” And by singing the line ”Wishin’, Lord, that I was stoned” from Kris Kristofferson’s ”Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down” after the network brass asked him not to. No corporate suit was going to tell the Man in Black what to do.