Back when variety shows dominated the three or four channels available in most homes, The Johnny Cash Show offered more than its namesake’s music to the masses. Across two seasons and 56 episodes, Cash taught Country Music 101, embraced then-controversial folk artists and shared his personal faith.
Cash, basking in the success of 1968’s At Folsom Prison and 1969’s At San Quentin, got his first shot at a prime time TV show with a summer replacement for ABC’s The Hollywood Palace. The first episode was filmed at the Ryman Auditorium and featured guest stars Joni Mitchell, Cajun fiddler Doug Kershaw and Bob Dylan. The latter sang the Nashville Skyline duet “Girl From the North Country” with Cash. The show continued from its June 7, 1969 debut until its March 31, 1971 finale.
Cash Creates Controversy
Although Cash bringing along usual collaborators June Carter Cash, the Carter Family, the Statler Brothers, Carl Perkins and the Tennessee Three made for great television, stand-out segments typically involved guests from outside the world of country music. For example, Cash hosted Pete Seeger just a few years after the folk legend’s controversial appearance on The Smothers Brothers Show. In retrospect, Seeger should’ve stuck out less than fellow The Johnny Cash Show alumni and social activist Neil Young or the different-sounding Stevie Wonder or The Guess Who.
Perhaps the biggest controversy came not from outside of country music, but from Cash’s cover of a song written by future Highwaymen band mate Kris Kristofferson. Despite network pressure, Cash refused to cut the word “stoned” from “Sunday Morning Coming Down.” The unedited performance went on to become a successful single off the show’s soundtrack album. That means Cash defied ABC en route to a hit for his CBS-affiliated label home, Columbia. Cash believed in the song as-is, and his label honored that by selecting it instead of a medley of “Ring of Fire,” “I Walk the Line” and other obvious and safe songs as an album cut and single.
The Histories of Country and Gospel Music
A two-episode event during season two gathered country talent for a history lesson. Cash and his regular guests held class while guest professors Tammy Wynette, Merle Haggard, Kitty Wells, Bill Monroe and others celebrated American roots music on network television. Such country stars as Charley Pride, George Jones and Loretta Lynn appeared on the show over time, but only these two episodes exclusively featured past and present stars of the Grand Ole Opry.
Never one to shy away from sharing his spiritual beliefs, Cash also devoted an entire show to his gospel music favorites. The Feb. 24, 1971 episode brought together the best of African-American (Mahalia Jackson, Staples Singers) and Southern (Blackwood Brothers, Oak Ridge Boys) gospel for an unusual happening in the days before Christian-specific cable networks. That episode also featured an appearance by the late Billy Graham.
In closing, here’s two more historic facts from the show. Louis Armstrong’s appearance on the Oct. 28, 1970 episode brought Satchmo to the Ryman stage–where he’d once been banned from performing for his race–not too long before the jazz legend’s passing. Also, Cash debuted the song “Man in Black” on the Feb. 17, 1971 episode, furthering his outlaw image while sharing the stage with promising young talents James Taylor and Linda Ronstadt.