The First Episode of The Johnny Cash Show, Featuring Bob Dylan & Joni Mitchell (1969)

Whether you hate-watched, love-watched, or ignored last night’s Acad­e­my Awards, you may be tired today of Oscar talk. Take a break, unplug your­self from Face­book and Twit­ter, and trav­el with me back in TV time. It’s June 7th, 1969, and The John­ny Cash Show makes its debut on ABC, recorded—where else?—at the Grand Ole Opry (“I wouldn’t do it any­where but here”). Fea­tur­ing Cash ensem­ble reg­u­lars June Carter, the Carter fam­i­ly, Carl Perkins, the Statler Broth­ers, and the Ten­nessee Three, the musi­cal vari­ety show has a def­i­nite show­biz feel. Even the open­ing cred­its give this impres­sion, with a decid­ed­ly kitschy big band ren­di­tion of “Fol­som Prison Blues.” This seems a far cry from the defi­ant John­ny Cash who gave the world the fin­ger in a pho­to tak­en that same year dur­ing his San Quentin gig (where inmate Mer­le Hag­gard sat in atten­dance).

But show­biz John­ny Cash is still every inch the man in black, with his rough edges and refined musi­cal tastes (in fact, Cash debuted the song “Man in Black” on a lat­er episode). As daugh­ter Rosanne showed us, Cash was a musi­col­o­gist of essen­tial Amer­i­cana. His choice of musi­cal guests for his debut program—Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, and Cajun fid­dler Doug Ker­shaw—makes plain Cash’s love for folk songcraft. The appear­ance on the Cash show was Kershaw’s big break (two months lat­er his “Louisiana Man” became the first song broad­cast from the moon by the Apol­lo 12 astro­nauts). Mitchell, who plays “Both Sides Now” from her cel­e­brat­ed sec­ond album Clouds, was already a ris­ing star. And Dylan was, well, Dylan. Even if all you know of John­ny Cash comes from the 2005 film Walk the Line, you’ll know he was a huge Dylan admir­er. In the year The John­ny Cash Show debuted, the pair record­ed over a dozen songs togeth­er, one of which, “Girl from the North Coun­try,” appeared on Dylan’s coun­try album Nashville Sky­line. They play the song togeth­er, and Dylan plays that album’s “I Threw it All Away,” one of my all-time favorites.

Ini­tial­ly billed as “a live­ly new way to enjoy the sum­mer!” The John­ny Cash Show had a some­what rocky two-year run, occa­sion­al­ly run­ning afoul of ner­vous net­work exec­u­tives when, for exam­ple, Cash refused to cen­sor the word “stoned” from Kris Kristofferson’s “Sun­day Morn­ing Com­ing Down” and brought on Pete Seeger, despite the furor his anti-war views caused else­where. Ever the icon­o­clast, Cash was also ever the con­sum­mate enter­tain­er. After watch­ing the first episode of his show, you might agree that Cash and friends could have car­ried the hour even with­out his famous guests. Cash opens with a spir­it­ed “Ring of Fire” and also plays “Fol­som Prison Blues,” “The Wall,” and “Grey­stone Chapel.” And above, watch John­ny and June sing a sweet duet of Dylan’s “It Ain’t Me Babe.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

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

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

John­ny Cash Sings “Man in Black” for the First Time, 1971

Two Prison Con­certs That Defined an Out­law Singer: John­ny Cash at San Quentin and Fol­som (1968–69)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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