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 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 of country music. For example, Pete Seeger made a noteworthy appearance just a few years after the folk legend caused a stir on The Smothers Brothers Show.
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 from 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 as a single instead of a medley of "Ring of Fire," "I Walk the Line" and other obvious and safe songs.
The Histories of Country and Gospel Music
A two-episode event during season two gathered country talent for a history lesson. Cash and series regulars held class while guest professors Tammy Wynette, Merle Haggard, Kitty Wells, Bill Monroe and others celebrated American music's roots. 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 devoted an entire show to Christian music. The Feb. 24, 1971 episode brought together gospel music greats (Mahalia Jackson, Staples Singers, Blackwood Brothers, Oak Ridge Boys) for an unusual happening in the days before Christian-specific cable networks. That episode also featured the late Billy Graham.
Other memorable moments blurred genre lines. 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 being a Black man--not too long before the jazz legend's passing. In addition, Cash debuted the song "Man in Black" on the Feb. 17, 1971 episode which co-starred promising young talents James Taylor and Linda Ronstadt.
This article was originally published in 2019.