Johnny Cash: Singer, Outlaw, and, Briefly, Television Host

John­ny Cash needs no intro­duc­tion. But unless you hap­pened to be watch­ing ABC between June 1969 and March 1971, The John­ny Cash Show might. Cash added one more chap­ter to his leg­en­dar­i­ly sto­ried career by host­ing 58 episodes of the musi­cal vari­ety show from the Ryman Audi­to­ri­um in Nashville, then the home of the Grand Ole Opry. You might expect from such a set­up noth­ing but coun­try music, and Cash and his pro­duc­ers did indeed make a point of intro­duc­ing the gen­re’s stars to all of Amer­i­ca as well as high­light­ing its skilled but low-pro­file per­form­ers who would­n’t oth­er­wise have received nation­al expo­sure. But many John­ny Cash Show broad­casts reached well beyond Cash’s own pre­sump­tive base, mak­ing non-coun­try lumi­nar­ies acces­si­ble to coun­try lis­ten­ers as much as the oth­er way around. Above you’ll find a pop­u­lar video of Joni Mitchell singing “Both Sides, Now” on the pro­gram; Bob Dylan and Neil Young also made appear­ances rep­re­sent­ing the next gen­er­a­tion of singer-song­writ­ers.

But Cash also rou­tine­ly shared the stage with his elders, most notably Louis Arm­strong in a broad­cast that fea­tured Arm­strong singing “Crys­tal Chan­de­liers” and “Ram­blin’ Rose” and both of them per­form­ing “Blue Yodel #9.” He also joined in when he brought on Pete Seeger, which demon­strates an impres­sive col­lab­o­ra­tive range. I did­n’t expect to see poet Shel Sil­ver­stein turn up on the show, but then I’d for­got­ten that he wrote “A Boy Named Sue,” one of Cash’s best-known songs, not to men­tion the less­er-known “25 Min­utes to Go,” which each of them record­ed indi­vid­u­al­ly on their own albums. Alas, despite its sur­pris­ing cul­tur­al reach, The John­ny Cash Show could­n’t sur­vive the caprice of net­works eager to cap­ture a younger demo­graph­ic; it got the axe, along­side the likes of Green Acres, The Bev­er­ly Hill­bil­lies, and Hee-Haw in the so-called “rur­al purge” of the ear­ly sev­en­ties.

Relat­ed con­tent:

The 1969 Bob Dylan-John­ny Cash Ses­sions: Twelve Rare Record­ings

John­ny Cash Remem­bered with 1,000+ Draw­ings

Den­nis Hop­per Reads Rud­yard Kipling on John­ny Cash Show

Col­in Mar­shall hosts and pro­duces Note­book on Cities and Cul­ture. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall.

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  • Jeffrey H. Mulvey says:

    Cash’s tele­vi­sion show was­n’t nec­es­sar­i­ly a vic­tim of the “rur­al purge” of the ear­ly sev­en­ties. It was more a vic­tim of what Clive Davis in his auto­bi­og­ra­phy called “a blood­let­ting of vari­ety shows”. Andy Williams and Jim Nabors had their shows can­celed at the same time, pre­sent­ing for Davis a sales cri­sis. All three were on Colum­bia records and the TV shows helped their record sales. Cash’s show was­n’t thought of as “coun­try” nec­es­sar­i­ly, and he took crit­i­cism in Music City News (in Decem­ber of 1970) for it not being “coun­try” enough for them.

  • jarrett1983 says:

    The vari­ety show blood­let­ting was part of the rur­al purge, because demo­graph­i­cal­ly they appealed old­er and rur­al demo­graph­ics, how­ev­er adver­tis­ers decid­ed they only want­ed to appeal to young peo­ple in urban or sub­ur­ban areas.

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