The Johnny Cash Show

The Johnny Cash Show was a strange beast.  Debuting as summer-season filler in 1969, it found an audience and stuck around until 1971, ultimately becoming a victim of the “rural purge” which eliminated a host of classic rural-themed TV shows from the big networks’ rosters.  Over 58 episodes, though, America was able to tune in for an evening of music filmed at the great Ryman Auditorium in Nashville.  What’s particularly surprising about the show, though, is that despite the expected accoutrements of an early 70s variety show – orchestral arrangements, women in dresses with big poufy shoulders, garish sets – Johnny brought an incredibly diverse set of guests onto his stage.

Where the show was expansive, however, the 1970 album The Johnny Cash Show provides an enjoyable, but ultimately narrow view of Cash’s foray into television.  Clocking in at under 29 minutes with only six songs, it’s a slight one, too, and all of them are Cash solo numbers, missing out on the many one-of-a-kind duets viewers came to expect each week.

Despite the limited scope of the album, each song has been carefully chosen. At the centre of each side is a version of Come Along and Ride This Train, a feature akin to Cash’s 1960 album Ride This Train.  Following a quick run through of the central melody (studio versions of which have emerged in recent years), Cash sings a medley of songs about the America he loves so dearly: the fading world of small towns, working-class cities, and the roads, rails, and people who tie them all together.  Side one’s medley ties together three trucking songs: Six Days on the Run, Tom T. Hall’s There Ain’t No Easy Run, and Merle Travis’ Sailor on a Concrete Sea.  It’s an upbeat collage that brings Cash’s love for train songs into a more modern context.  Side two gives us a more reflective narrative of another go-to-theme for Cash: the cotton fields.  We’re given Harlan Howard’s Mississippi Delta Land, Mel Tillis’ lament of the cotton worker who’s moved north for work, Detroit City, and then the nostalgic Uncloudy Day and No Setting Sun.

Each side closes with an inspirational piece drawn from past gospel albums of Johnny’s, both employing spoken-word introductions.  These Hands is the soft ballad of an old man reflecting with pride on his simple, but powerful legacy, and it outdoes the original (found on 1961’s Hymns from the Heart) if only for Cash’s impassioned vocal.  Here Was a Man is a poetic tribute to Jesus first recorded on 1963’s The Christmas Spirit.  Johnny’s deep baritone delivery is magical, although the syrupy strings detract.

It is the opening tracks, however, that are best remembered from this release.  Sunday Morning Coming Down is Johnny’s second recording of a Kris Kristofferson song, and this time he nails it perfectly.  Despite the somewhat overbearing orchestration, it remains to this day the perfect hangover song.  As the opener to an album that is sentimental and at times preachy, it reminds the listener of just who is doing the preaching.  Johnny aspired to greatness, both as a man and an artist, but also wore his failings on his sleeve.  It’s his humility that I’ve always found so inspiring.  The song went to number 1 on the country charts and deservedly so.

The opener for Side 2- I’m Gonna Try to Be That Way – can easily be overshadowed by the great Sunday Morning, which is a tragedy.  A Cash original, it fills out the narrative arc of the album.  Johnny had a special way of making you feel like he really understood your troubles.  On a song like I’m Gonna Try, he reminds you of the goodness found in Jesus:

He never done anybody wrong, He tried to help everybody ‘long, He brought a better land to make a better man, Out of the rich or the poor, Or the weak or the strong

And he preached love and brotherhood, He went around doin’ good, doin’ good, Everywhere he went, They knew that he was sent, And the people started actin’ like they should

As Johnny sang about his simple faith and how he was going to do his best to follow his saviour, he made you feel like you might be able to do the same, too.  Despite the corny trumpets that intrude towards the end, it’s still a special tune.

This album has its flaws.  It’s too short.  The orchestration, typical of an early 70s variety show, gets in the way of the songs.  It only shows one side of the Johnny Cash Show.  Yet, it has its own charm, it’s well structured, and what songs it does have are all great.  In Cash’s massive catalogue, it’s not essential, but it is unique.


Other Songs from the Era:

  • The Best of the Johnny Cash Show: In 2007 a 16-track CD was released featuring highlight performances from the show’s run.  This CD is a much better representation of the show than the 1970 LP.  It’s got Cash singing his hits (Ring of Fire, Flesh and Blood), and others’ (I’ve Been Everywhere), plus doing some of the classics with the Statler Brothers and the Carter Family (Belshazzar, Daddy Sang Bass).  Then, it throws in some solo performances by the stars who graced his stage, and a wonderful duet with Joni Mitchell on Girl from the North Country.  A two-disc DVD expanded this to a full 66-song set (and swapped Joni’s duet on North Country for Bob Dylan’s – they’re both amazing).  As you explore the number of artists who performed on Johnny’s show, you get a real sense of what he was trying to do.  All of the country greats were there: Tammy Wynette, George Jones, a hilarious Roy Clark, Bobby Bare, Conway Twitty, Marty Robbins, the Everly Brothers, Ray Price, Chet Atkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, Loretta Lynn, Charley Pride, and Bill Monroe.  They’re all in fine form, particular Glen Campbell’s glorious Wichita Lineman.  Then there’s the new breed of singer-songwriters Johnny loved so much: Tony Joe White, Kris Kristofferson, Linda Ronstadt, Hank Williams Jr., James Taylor, and Waylon Jennings.  He also moves beyond Nashville to those long-haired rock and roll freaks: Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, and CCR.  I love in particular how he brings in African-American artists who only a short while ago would have been banned from Ryman’s all-white stage: Stevie Wonder (who plays drums on Get Rhythm!) and the great Louis Armstrong (who, with Johnny, recreates a 1930 session he played on with Jimmie Rogers; the sight of Louis in a 10-gallon hat is unforgettable!).  Although Cash was a country artist, he saw no boundaries.  This was no more apparent than in his stunning duet on Worried Man Blues with Pete Seeger.  Godfather of modern folk music he may be, but I often find Pete’s rigid stance on so many issues to be offputting.  Here though, he offers a masterclass in showmanship and musicianship.  Johnny nad Pete together are wonderful.  And somehow, Cash manages to get his middle-American audience to gobble up the melodies of America’s most famous lefty!  The CD and DVD are great, but in the age of YouTube, somewhat irrelevant.  For every great performance on here, there’s another omitted: The Monkees in full comedic form; a very psychedelic The Guess Who interspersed with Johnny’s What is Truth; and a to-die-for guitar jam session between Jose Feliciano, Carl Perkins and Merle Travis. A complete remastered box set is needed!
  • This Land is Your Land – Like so many of the performances on The Johnny Cash Show, it starts out well with just Johnny on acoustic guitar.  Then the strings come in… oh well.  Still worth a listen.  Available on Johnny Cash’s America (and the Best of Johnny Cash Show DVD).
  • Christmas as I Knew It – Johnny released this song twice, first on 1963’s The Christmas Spirit, and later on 1972’s Family Christmas.  A 1970 recording from his show, however, went unreleased until the compilation Christmas with Johnny Cash was released.  He obviously loved this narrative of his childhood Christmas memories.  This version might just be the best as the strings are thankfully restrained, allowing his booming baritone to lead the way.

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