In the late ’60s, Johnny Cash finally became a celebrity. Unlike his first bid at stardom nearly a decade earlier, when the young singer failed to utilize the rising television medium to its full potential and soon spiraled into a haze of substance abuse, the middle-aged (and, more important, sober) Cash became comfortable enough to take on the celebrity mantle. This confidence enabled him to throw down the At Folsom Prison gauntlet to his skeptical record company, convince the love of his life to marry him, and become the latest host of a television variety show.
The Johnny Cash Show was a one-hour variety show on ABC that ran from June 1969 to May 1971. Though short-lived, Cash, who was at one of several peaks of his popularity, broke from the pack by using the program as a showcase for the most influential musicians of the twentieth century. Given Cash’s status in the country world, he naturally featured guests such as Roy Orbison, Waylon Jennings, Merle Haggard, Charley Pride, and Ray Price. But Cash made clear his universal view of music by inviting stars, regardless of genre and age: thus, Ray Charles turned “Ring of Fire” into a sultry and searing swinger; Louis Armstrong vamped the blues with Cash; and up-and-coming artists like Stevie Wonder, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Joni Mitchell, Derek and the Dominos, and Kris Kristofferson performed their own soon-to-be classics. And of course June, the Carter Family, and the Tennessee Three were at his side every week.
This willingness to take risks and offer opportunities to others is what made Cash and his show incomparable. Cash knew talent when he saw or heard it, and his word meant a lot. So, it was no small feat, nor beyond reasonable expectations, that the reclusive Bob Dylan joined Cash on the pilot episode of the program. Such performances (particularly their duet on “Girl from the North Country”) have been bootlegged widely for decades, so this DVD set is significant for making available many widely sought-after recorded performances. From the series’ fifty-eight episodes, sixty-six complete performances are featured here on two DVDs. Interspersed between the performances are reflections from Kris Kristoferson, members of the Tennessee Three, and other family members and friends of Cash. Although completists will complain that not one single show is included here in its entirety, the DVD set deserves credit for focusing on the show’s undeniable strength: its music.