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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