Thus far, these pieces have been inspired by books I’ve read and albums I love. This piece was inspired by an old DVD I have.
As I sat and re-watched my copy of “The Best of The Johnny Cash Show,” I couldn’t help but love the way it was done. The musical performances featured legends in their prime, and Cash wasn’t afraid to think outside the box for who to have on the show either. I knew immediately what I wanted to write about next (even if unfortunately it won’t be the longest piece).
Country music had its fair share of televisions show prior to “the Johnny Cash Show.” The Ford Show, Ozark Jubilee, The Porter Wagoner Show … you get the idea (ironically another show that aired the same year as this show was the Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour). Johnny Cash wasn’t even a stranger either to television. He appeared on the Jackie Gleason Show in 1957 when he sang “I Walk The Line.”
In other words, the world was more than ready when “The Johnny Cash Show” debuted on ABC-TV on June 7, 1969. It should be noted that it was never really Cash’s idea to do something like this. ABC approached him after his Live at Folsom Prison album exploded in 1968 and not only sold millions, but revived his career as well. Of all the events in Cash’s life, you really wouldn’t think THAT would have made him an attractive figure to television executives and sponsors (especially for the time), but thankfully the pieces of the puzzle came together.
At first, the show was a series of compromises. Sure, Cash could tape the show at the Ryman Auditorium as he wished, but he also had to host “showbiz royalty” like Bob Hope, George Gobel, Kirk Douglas, Burl Ives, Peggy Lee and Lorne Greene.
In a nutshell, the show sought to capture what Cash was all about in his music. Themes of rural dreams, common struggle, the West and America’s virtues and failings made their way into the show.
On Saturday nights (and later Wednesday nights), Cash would greet you with his famous “hello, I’m Johnny Cash” greeting before diving into whatever he would do for the week. Whether he’d sing gospel music, fawn over Jimmie Rodgers with Merle Haggard or debut a new song he wrote called “The Man In Black,” viewers never got the exact same thing twice. The first show featured Joni Mitchell, Doug Kershaw, Fannie Flagg as a comic, and Bob Dylan.
Two popular segments on the show included “Country Gold” and “Ride This Train.” The former segment sought to feature country legends who either were seeing their glory days at radio come to an end or simply not featured all that much on television networks. More importantly though it allowed viewers to connect the historical dots between gospel, western, Nashville Sound and beyond while also connecting the young and older performers. The latter segment always occurred in the middle, with monologues and songs narrated by Cash himself as he took a video journey through hobo camps, prisons, Indian reservations, interstate highways, and other forgotten points of history in America. (Editor’s note: I don’t support whatever it is that’s being advertised at the beginning of the Country Gold video).
The DVD I mentioned early really speaks for itself as to who Cash let onto the show. You expect artists like George Jones, Loretta Lynn, Merle Haggard and others to show up at least once or twice. You don’t really expect names like Neil Young, the Who, Derek & The Dominos or Stevie Wonder. That’s the beauty of the show though – it was for everyone. It asserted country music’s place within a broad range of United States culture.
The guests weren’t really as farfetched as it seems though. For example, Bob Dylan had been in and out of Nashville cutting albums like Blonde on Blonde, John Wesley Harding and Nashville Skyline (which includes a duet with Cash). The show was also responsible for helping launch Kris Kristofferson’s career when Cash turned “Sunday Morning Coming Down” into one of the biggest singles of 1970. Bassist of the Tennessee Three Marshall Grant says in the DVD that “the producer wanted us to take out the line ‘I’m wishing, Lord, that I was stoned’ before we played it on television. John said ‘I’ll think about it’. ”
His hair stylist Penni Lane proceeded to say “John told me in the dressing room ‘I don’t give a damn what they say. I’m going to sing it that way because Kris wrote it that way. There’s nothing wrong with singing the truth’. ”
And so it happened. Kristofferson says with a laugh that “I was up here on the balcony looking down at him while he was singing the song. He looked up at me, sang that line, and I almost fell out of my chair.”
As history has shown though, country music could never *really* sit with the cool kids despite how progressive Cash’s show was. Its two year run ended in 1971 when “CBS killed everything with a tree in it,” said Pat Buttram who played Mr. Haney on “Green Acres.”
The end of an era was known as the “rural purge.” “Petticoat Junction” and “Gomer Pyle, USMC” went first, in 1970. Then, in 1971, came the end of “The Beverly Hillbillies,” “Green Acres,” “Mayberry RFD,” “Hee Haw” and as you might guess, “The Johnny Cash Show.””The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour” somehow survived until 1972. The man responsible was named Fred Silverman.
Well, I guess it’s not fair to give him all the credit. It actually started when Robert Wood replaced CBS running head Michael Dann with Silverman.
Well actually, we have to go back even further than that.
Thanks to the Prime Time Access Rule which took effect in 1971, it was instituted by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to restrict the amount of network programming that local television stations owned by or affiliated with a network may have aired during the evening. Basically, CBS had to trim the equivalent of seven half-hour programs from their weekly schedules and give them back to the local stations.
When “Petticoat Junction” was replaced by “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” in 1971, the audience was completely different. The latter show catered to an audience that was urban and sophisticated.
Silverman responded by slashing the rest of the aforementioned shows.
Certainly some of these shows were running out of steam anyhow, but Mr. Silverman’s agenda was explicit. Maybe it was a strict business maneuver based on a smaller advertiser demand for these shows’ urban audiences or maybe Mr. Silverman was biased against hillbillies, but a cultural sting was associated with the purge and is still recalled bitterly by the show’s producers and performers, as well as by their old fans. Heck, the fact that “Hee Haw” survived 22 more years in first-run syndication suggests Mr. Silverman was perhaps a tad wrong in his assumptions.
As evidenced above though, “The Johnny Cash Show” didn’t appeal to hillbillies or urban audiences – it appealed to both. Moreover, with Cash’s “Ride This Train” feature, nobody in their right mind could say that the old hillbilly (if Cash could ever be called that anyway) was backward in his thinking. In fact, in its time, “The Johnny Cash Show” was one of the coolest shows around, bridging the gap between all musical worlds in terms of genre and age. Thankfully there’s still DVDs and blurry Youtube footage of it. The national network getTV also started airing re-runs of the show this July.
I have included some of my personal favorite performances below to end this piece:
Here’s one for Fred Silverman too – the first time Cash ever performed “The Man In Black.”
This post was written thanks to the following sources:
- Hillbilly: A Cultural History of an American Icon by Anthony Harkins (2005).
- Prime Time Access Rule. Retrieved here <http://www.museum.tv/eotv/primetimeac.htm>
The Johnny Cash Show: The Best of Johnny Cash 1969-1971 directed by Michael B. Borofsky (my copy only has around half of these performances for some reason).
- Will The Circle Be Unbroken: Country Music In America by the Country Music Hall of Fame and edited by Paul Kingsbury and Alanna Nash (2006).