American musicians always have, for the most part, understood that the various categories of American music are mostly imaginary. They’re marketing tools drawn up by those in the business of selling music to the public, and they cater mostly to those in the mainstream who feel threatened by those on the margins. The musicians themselves are generally more likely to recognize the affinities that bind pop, rock, soul, country, blues and folk, and to blur the lines between them. Those recording artists who have been most successful, from Jimmie Rodgers on down, have always been willing to sing whatever their audiences will buy tickets or records to hear.
Our best modern example of this is Johnny Cash. And the best illustration of it was Cash’s television show, which aired 58, hour-long episodes over three seasons in 1969, 1970 and 1971. Now for the first time, a small portion of the show’s legacy is available on DVD.
It’s hard to overstate the divisions that separated Americans from each other as the 1960s ground to a close. Civil Rights and anti-war movements, mass protests, demonstrations, student occupations on universities, assassinations, riots, and daily death tolls from Vietnam, all segregated Americans into warring camps. Not to mention long vs. short hair, hip youth vs. squares, the growing drug culture, the so-called Generation Gap. It was all too easy to pigeon-hole people and keep them apart.
Johnny Cash brought them together on television. Broadcasting from Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium, home of the Grand Ole Opry, Johnny subverted all of the accepted order. Nashville? That’s the home of all that square country music! Ah, but it’s also where Bob Dylan cut Blonde On Blonde. Johnny Cash, but he’s country! OK, but Johnny Cash was also rock ‘n’ roll, folk, the blues. But, he’s a Bible-toting Christian! Yes, but he also has a hit record in which he sings, “I’m the son of a bitch that named you Sue!” He’d gone through the hell of addiction, landed in jail a few times for it, and emerged clean and sober – but he was never part of the jingoistic war on drugs. In short, he was someone everyone could relate to. And he was one of the biggest celebrities in America at the time, so if he wanted to have a bunch of long-haired hippies or black and white musicians singing together on his show, he could. And did.
In just shy of 90 minutes, this DVD gives a brief taste of all that. In addition to Cash himself singing some of his biggest hits (“I Walk The Line,” “Hey Porter,” “Daddy Sang Bass,” “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” and “A Boy Named Sue”), here are some of the biggest names in country, folk and rock – not just from then, but from the entire era. Dylan sings “I Threw It All Away” on the very first show, then a very straight and even scared looking George Jones sings a medley of his hits. Neil Young, a few weeks after the concert in Toronto’s Massey Hall that was just released on DVD itself, sings “The Needle And The Damage Done.” Creedence hammers its way through a fairly stiff “Bad Moon Rising,” then Loretta Lynn sings “I Know How” and Tammy Wynette her mega-hit, “Stand By Your Man.” A young-looking, suit-wearing, pompadoured Waylon Jennings nails “Brown Eyed Handsome Man,” Roy Orbison wails “Crying” and Ray Charles hits a deep soul groove on his cover of “Ring Of Fire.” We see the past of rock ‘n’ roll as Carl Perkins leads his band in “Blue Suede Shoes,” and its future as a rail-thin Eric Clapton leads Derek and the Dominos in an electrified blues, “It’s Too Late.”
Johnny and June, a few weeks after giving birth to their son John Carter Cash, celebrate her return to the stage with a flat-out version of “Jackson,” grinning and mugging and still not missing a note. Johnny talks with students on the Vanderbilt campus about drug abuse, then debuts his new song “Man In Black” at the Ryman, with those same students seated in the round down in the stage pit with him. The respect, even love in their eyes as they watch him sing this song, in which he voices their concerns about racial inequality, poverty and war, speaks volumes. I was in junior high and high school during these years, and I can testify about how good it felt to have someone of Johnny Cash’s stature on our side.
The Best Of The Johnny Cash TV Show is also a great time capsule into things like fashion and TV production. Powder-blue suits and miniskirts abound, as do pompadours on the men and beehives on the women – Loretta Lynn wears a black wig that’s truly hideous. Some of the sets look like they came from Laugh-In or Hee-Haw.
And the producers have tried to make this a documentary, with an introductory segment and talking heads interspersed between the songs. For the most part, they’re an unnecessary distraction, and not all that well edited. I wish there was more information on the backing musicians, too. I recognize Norman Blake, who was a regular, playing 12-string behind Kris Kristofferson on “Loving Her Was Easier (Than Anything I’ll Ever Do Again)”, but who’s that guy on the double-neck six- and 12-string electric behind Jennings — and the woman on keyboards with him, for that matter?
But there’s no faulting the music. This DVD is a treasure for all fans of American music, and I hope a down payment on what’s to come. I for one will be there, plunking down my money the day the full set of all 59 hours of The Johnny Cash TV Show is released. No date has yet been announced. In the meantime, get this one and savor it.
(DVD, Columbia/Legacy, 2007)