(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)
I’ve been out in Hollywood for a few days, sampling the flora and fauna and enjoying the local culture. The other night, I walked down Hollywood Boulevard by Graumann’s Chinese Theater, where police had blocked off the street and where hundreds of fans turned out to wave identical little blue Kazakhstan flags (wonder where they got those?) and to eagerly wait for a glimpse of the actor Sacha Boren Cohen at the premiere of his new Borat movie.
Why were these fans turning out in droves? Maybe it’s because the character Borat is giving them something they’re not getting anywhere else: something that passes for originality in these days of repackaged, formulaic, warmed-over junk on TV and in movies and in music.
In much the same way that Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert have leapfrogged over traditional network TV shows, Johnny Cash once did the same over the traditional TV variety shows.
I’ve been immersed lately in the archives of the Johnny Cash Show, the TV variety series Cash did in Nashville during 1969 and 1970. Regardless of anything else anyone says about Johnny Cash, I’ll tell you one thing for sure: He delivered some original TV programming with some pretty solid damn music.
The very first Cash show, which aired on ABC on June 7, 1969, was unlike anything network TV had seen.
Two of his musical guests on that show were making their network TV debuts. They were youth culture icons Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell. How significant was that for pop culture?
Pretty significant. It was a breakthrough for the bubbling-under rock culture.
The year 1969 was a divisive one for the United States. The almost decade-long Vietnam War had long since spun out of control, and 500,000 antiwar demonstrators marched in Washington. The antiwar movement was intertwined for many mainstream Americans with the youth culture identified by rock ‘n’ roll, long hair, drugs, sexual promiscuity and a general air of disrespect for tradition.
From the start, Cash’s show was a great cultural unifier for this divided America. Bob Dylan, regarded as a protest singer at the time, and Joni Mitchell, the personification of the hippie chick singer-songwriter, could share a primetime network TV show with Cash, the Statler Brothers, June Carter Cash and the additional first show guests, Cajun singer Doug Kershaw and the mainstream writer and actress Fannie Flagg.
Subsequent guests during the show’s run included Neil Young (making his network TV debut), jazz icon Louis Armstrong, Minnie Pearl, native American singer Buffy St. Marie, Glen Campbell, the Monkees, Merle Haggard, Ray Charles, Roger Miller, Mama Cass Elliot, Roy Orbison, Arlo Guthrie, Kris Kristofferson, Gordon Lightfoot, Charley Pride, Waylon Jennings, Neil Diamond, Loretta Lynn, Conway Twitty, actor-comic Albert Brooks, actor Dennis Hopper, poet Rod McKuen, the Rev. Billy Graham, Judy Collins, Rick Nelson, Buck Owens, Tammy Wynette, Linda Ronstadt, Liza Minnelli, Jose Feliciano and Roy Rogers and Dale Evans.
In other words, Cash ranged far and wide over the musical and cultural landscape to present a striking cross section of what he thought was the best then available. And he occasionally had the odd trapeze act or monkey act. It was truly fun for the whole family, back when that notion was not such an outmoded concept. He also championed the preservation of America’s past with his recurring “Ride This Train” feature.
Since these shows have long been unavailable for viewing, this is a side of Johnny Cash that has been sort of overlooked. This is not Cash the hell-raiser or Cash the looming Folsom Prison eminence or Cash the Mount Rushmore giant. It’s Cash as an entertaining and affable show host, which I suspect is a very accurate picture of what Cash was actually like when he wasn’t in character as the Man in Black.
Some of the Johnny Cash Show highlights will become available on DVD next year, and they will be a valuable addition to the Johnny Cash canon of work. It’s funny, but the longer it’s been since Johnny Cash died, the more relevant he becomes to today’s pop culture.