It’s the birthday of the Man in Black today, Johnny Cash (1932-2003). Cash is one of those figures too large for a single post, I think, at last, in the short term. I recently did this appreciation on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Folsom Prison a few months back. And seeing as how I’ve been posting quite a lot about TV variety shows lately (possibly leading up towards a book on the topic), it makes sense to do a post on Cash’s entry into the genre, The Johnny Cash Show, which is coming up on its 50th anniversary as well.
This show, which ran on ABC from 1969 to 1971 would have been my original frame of reference on the country singer, his wife June Carter and the Carter Family Singers. The show was taped at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium, home of the Grand Ole Oprey. For some context, Hee Haw also launched that year; The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour had debuted the year before, as had Elvis’s stripped down leather-clad comeback special. There was a kind of country music Renaissance underway.
But it was also calendar year 1969, a time of big change. Both Cash and the network were interested in talking to more than just one audience. So while traditional country musicians were a key part of the show’s fabric, so were younger or more cutting edge personalities. Bob Dylan, then in his Nashville Skyline phase, was on the very first episode. Kris Kristofferson performed “Sunday Morning Coming Down” — soon to be a hit for Cash. Also on the show were artists as diverse as Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Arlo Guthrie, Dusty Springfield, Lulu, Bobby Gentry, Gordon Lightfoot, the Cowsills and the Monkees. He also presented Pete Seeger, whose “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy” had been cut from The Smothers Brothers Hour the previous year. Cash debuted his own song “The Man in Black” on the show; and as much as came out against the Vietnam War.
Which all goes to say that Cash used his show to communicate, to do something, which is more than most people did. Which makes it especially ironic that his show fell victim to the “Rural Purge” which we wrote about here, when rural and family programming was axed en amass to accommodate younger, hipper shows.
In 1976, the show came back as Johnny Cash and Friends, which naturally I remember a bit better. This incarnation placed a greater emphasis on comedy, featuring such regulars as newcomers Steve Martin and Jim Varney, and June Carter Cash herself, who did a character named Aunt Polly not worlds away from Minnie Pearl.
To learn more about variety entertainment, including tv variety shows, please consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous,