The spate of post-mortem Johnny Cash product shows no sign of abating, but unlike much of what’s come out in the last four years, The Best of the Johnny Cash TV Show is worthwhile to both the casual Cash fan and anyone interested in American popular music. For more than four hours, we’re treated not only to Cash’s many hits - “Ring of Fire”, “I Walk the Line”, “A Boy Named Sue” and others are given the expected airings - but also to a bevy of tunes that formed the foundation of Cash’s music: his wonderful reading of Merle Haggard’s “Working Man Blues”, several old Carter Family songs, a holy heap of gospel numbers, and much, much more.
From June 1969 to March 1971, The Johnny Cash TV Show served as a springboard for the recently rejuvenated Cash. Not long before, he’d been struggling with drugs, his marriage had collapsed, and his career was at a low point. But in 1968, he cleaned up, married June Carter, and released Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison. The June 7, 1969, premiere episode of The Johnny Cash TV Show must’ve seemed like icing on the cake to the back-on-top Cash, but everyone sitting at home was witnessing the moment when country music’s most conflicted Christian outlaw became an American icon. It didn’t hurt that the marquee guest that night was the elusive Bob Dylan, who looked spooked but sounded fantastic during his solo performance of “I Threw It All Away” and his duet with Cash on “Girl From the North Country”. Even though Dylan had left the “counterculture” behind (if only to inadvertently start a new one), his hip cred was considerable, and Cash scored a major coup in getting his old friend to perform.
But it’s almost easy to forget about Dylan once you’ve made your way through this entire set. For anyone who heard anything from Cash’s final decade of work and was surprised by his far-ranging tastes (not even including the gimmicky stuff like “Hurt”), this two-DVD set will be a revelation. Cash didn’t merely invite Louis Armstrong onto the show: he stood in for Jimmie Rodgers in a recreation of the recording session in which Armstrong had joined the Singing Brakeman for “Blue Yodel #9”, and the country, jazz, and blues worlds collided in memorable fashion. And when he sang a duet with Linda Ronstadt, it was long before she was a household name.
Since the basic formula of The Johnny Cash TV Show didn’t change, the producers behind this collection were wise to play around with the order of things. A chronological presentation wouldn’t have yielded, for example, the fantastic mid-set lineup of Tony Joe White, Glen Campbell, Neil Diamond, Ray Price and Roy Orbison. This sequence illustrates both what’s good and bad about these DVDs, and about Cash’s program. White sings “Polk Salad Annie”, of course, and Cash kinda sits there occasionally strumming a chord, clearly interested and enthusiastic but out of his element. Campbell and Price perform very classy versions of “Wichita Lineman” and “For the Good Times”, respectively, but Diamond’s “Cracklin’ Rosie” is a disappointment. It seems like a lot of times in the ‘60s and ‘70s, performers would truncate their songs for TV appearances, which is what Diamond does here, depriving it of the rising intensity that makes the studio version such a fine record. (Another, similar compulsion to perform medleys befalls George Jones and Marty Robbins.) Finally, Orbison does an amazing “Crying” and duets with Cash on “Oh, Pretty Woman”, but the latter is lowered to accommodate Cash’s cavernous voice. As a result, Orbison has to sing lower, too, and his vocal doesn’t soar quite like it should. It’s a charming, off-the-cuff sort of performance, but not as musically satisfying as a lot of what’s here.
If Cash’s eagerness to duet occasionally resulted in less-than-stellar performances, other times it made for great TV and great music. The Dylan and Armstrong collaborations stand out (and Johnny and June singing together is almost always a treat), but at least two other songs offer pleasant surprises. On one of the earliest shows, Joni Mitchell was Cash’s guest, and the two paired up for the oft-covered “Long Black Veil”. The performance itself is quite good, but the shock of hearing Mitchell sing a cover song (and a country one, at that) at this stage of her career should be enough to convince any of her fans to check this out. And on one of the later shows, Cash and regular participant Carl Perkins join Derek and the Dominos for a romp through Perkins’ “Matchbox”, with the songwriter trading verses and solos with Eric Clapton.
There’s a lot of great stuff on this collection, and the guest list for Cash’s show was eclectic and impressive. In addition to all the folks I’ve already mentioned, there’s Kris Kristofferson (who also provides occasional narration), Stevie Wonder, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Tammy Wynette, Loretta Lynn, James Taylor, Neil Young, Jerry Lee Lewis… and the list goes on. For my money, though, the knockout segment belongs to Ray Charles, who plays a snippet of “I Walk the Line” and then dives head-first into a slow, soulful “Ring of Fire”, which gets him one of the biggest ovations of the program. (Much is made in the brief between-song interview segments of Cash’s role as “cultural unifier.” Look no further than this clip to see what they’re talking about.)
What’s most impressive about The Best of the Johnny Cash TV Show, though, is the way Cash’s spirit permeates the entire thing. Sure, it was a “family show,” and there’s plenty of goofiness - much of it courtesy of the Statler Brothers, and much of it very dated - but Cash didn’t stray from the subject matter that meant the most to him. His own conflicted recent past influences both the music and the filmed clips in which he discusses drugs, faith, and the plight of the underdog. When he introduces his guests, you get the feeling he isn’t just piling on the bullshit, but that he actually really likes these people and their work. If we needed another reason to think of Johnny Cash as a decent human being, this set provides it in spades, and maybe gives us an opportunity to add “patron of the arts” to the lengthy list of his admirable qualities. It also reminds us that the best of his music - the very reason we know and love him most of all - more than holds up after all these years.
(There aren’t any extras, but who needs ‘em when the program itself is packed with so much quality stuff?)