Johny Cash was one of the greatest American artists of the 20th century. His unique sound was a combination of rock & roll, rockabilly, blues, folk, and gospel, though Cash was generally referred to as a country musician. With his deep and calm voice, somber and humble appearance, and his all black outfit, Cash became a musical icon.
Cash’s music was rebellious and often politically and morally engaged, filled with themes such as sorrow, moral tribulation, and redemption. In his lustrous career, Johnny Cash introduced us to songs such as “Ring of Fire,” “Folsom Prison Blues,” “Man in Black,” and many more. Besides working on his own music, Cash was always promoting and introducing other songwriters, whether through collaborations or by inviting artists to play together with him on his tours. In 1969 Johnny Cash received an offer from ABC to run his own variety show focused on folk-country music. The 58-episode show aired from June 1969 to March 1971. The show became a must for anybody who wanted to listen to country music, a sort of “Country Music 101.”
The show was recorded at the Ryman Auditorium, also known as “the Mother Church of Country Music.” An instrumental version of “Folsom Prison Blues” was chosen for the opening credits, and Cash opened each episode with one of his songs along with his usual greeting: “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash.” Besides the weekly guest spot, the show had the regular crew which consisted of Johnny Cash himself, his wife, June Carter Cash, and the Carter Family, Carl Perkins, and the Tennessee Three, the Statler Brothers and musical director/conductor Bill Walker.
Cash was invited by ABC to do the TV show after the success he had with his two live albums recorded at Folsom Prison and San Quentin prison. He was at the peak of his career and with his charismatic personality, Cash was the perfect choice for a TV show host. The pilot of the show was a one hour program that served as a summer replacement for the Saturday night variety show called “The Hollywood Palace.”
There were many contemporary country artists who appeared on “The Johnny Cash Show.” Many of the guests were stars, like Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Kris Kristofferson, Neil Young, James Taylor, and Louis Armstrong, which was among the latter’s last TV appearances before he died. Besides the stars, Johnny Cash always tried to bring forward and introduce young talent or country music artists who rarely got the chance to perform in front of the whole nation. Cash made a particular segment of the show for this purpose, the “Country Gold” segment. The first episode of the show included Joni Mitchell, Cajun fiddler Doug Kershaw, Fannie Flagg (a comedian), and Bob Dylan.
Cash had a lot of freedom in his choice of guests and the overall format of his show, but as always in show business, he had to make some compromises. One of those compromises was hosting such Hollywood celebrities as Kirk Douglas, Burl Ives, Peggy Lee and Lorne Greene from time to time. The network wanted them on because they boosted the ratings and satisfied advertisers.
Although Cash made certain compromises in his show, he stood up to many so-called “network anxieties.” On many occasions, ABC wanted to censor and control individual elements of the show to make them more friendly to the wider audience, but Cash was always against it. For example, he once refused to eliminate the word “stoned” from Kris Kristofferson’s “Sunday Morning Coming Down.” On another occasion, he went against the wishes of the network and brought on Pete Seeger to perform his anti-Vietnam song.
Unfortunately, after 58 episodes, “The Johnny Cash Show” was canceled. This happened because of the Prime Time Access Rule. All the main networks were forced to cut 30 minutes from their prime-time nightly schedules. Most of the networks decided to cut the shows that had a rural impact instead of those that were more popular in cities. “The Johnny Cash Show” audience was primarily rural. Because of this, the Prime Time Access Rule became known as the “rural purge.”
CBS revived the show in 1976 under the name “Johnny Cash and Friends.” This new show was recorded at the Grand Ole Opry House in Nashville. It had a similar format to the old one, but wasn’t as popular as the original.
Johnny Cash was a great musician, one of those people who moved and reshaped the borders of our musical perception. The show he hosted and the way he always aspired to promote new artists speaks volumes about his progressive musical view. Cash was a motivator, mentor, and a visionary.