Johnny Cash- the multi-cultural ambassador
Along with his late 60's live albums he did in jails (though not as an inmate those times), part of what made Johnny Cash and country music household names in mainstream America was his '69-'71 variety show that he had, now finally collected and released in a 2 DVD box set.
Not that a country music variety show like this happened in a vacuum... That same year that Cash's show premiered, so did Glen Campbell's Goodtime Hour (which also featured performers that appeared on Cash's show, including Cash himself) and long-time staple Hee Haw (which had pretty much exclusively country music guests). Cash's show was different as it featured not just a wider range of music but also a heavier hitter hosting and showcasing his music week after week.
Impressive as the Cash series DVD is, it's not complete or ideal. First of all, it's missing other historic appearances by the likes of Mama Cass, Roy Acuff, Arlo Guthrie. Also, some of the frequent duets that Cash does with his guests are awkward (Roy Orbison) or just sloppy (Tony Joe White). And as for the non-musical material, the DVD thankfully only gives you a small taste of what you missed otherwise including June Carter's downhome poems and the Statler Brothers' attempts at comedy routines. Also, it's regrettable that Cash couldn't coral his old buddy Elvis (who was supposed discouraged by Colonel Parker), the Rolling Stones (who were in a country phase at the time) or James Brown (who did a killer version of "Your Cheatin' Heart").
But those are small quibbles compared to some of the amazing material that is featured on the DVD set. Alongside country legends like Marty Robbins, Loretta Lynn, Merle Haggard, Tammy Wynette and George Jones, there's great performances by Neil Young (an appropriately haunting "The Needle and the Damage Done"), Stevie Wonder, Ray Charles (who does a simmering soul version of "Ring of Fire"), Creedence Clearwater Revival ("Bad Moon Rising"), Derek and the Dominos ("It's Too Late"), Jerry Lee Lewis (a wonderfully raucous take on the already raucous "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On"), Bob Dylan (a rare appearance during his retirement years and during his Nashville Skyline phase), Louis Armstrong (shortly before he died, doing a duet on "Blue Yodel" with Cash). And for a "wow, did that really happen?" moment, Cash comes on after the Derek number to speak to Eric Clapton, then bringing on Carl Perkins (who was part of Cash's band then) so that he can trade solos with Clapton on "Matchbox."
(Also marvel at the site of the almost unrecognizable Waylon Jennings and Hank Williams Jr. in their early beardless state. Jennings even has a band with a woman keyboard player (his wife, the great Jessi Colter), a guitarist playing a double-neck ax and a bassist with a peace sign on his instrument)
As wide-ranging as his musical guest list was, you notice that many of them bend to country's conventions for the show: Dylan was in country mode then, Cash brags of Clapton's country licks on the Derek song, Brother Ray's Cash song, Satchmo recreating his Jimmie Rodgers duet, etc.. Maybe it's only fare since he had such a diverse guest list that he'd get his buddies to meet him halfway. It also serves as a worthy reminder that country has seeped into many other musical styles for a while now, and vice versa.
After the show was canceled, thanks to prime time rescheduling that killed a number of other shows then, Cash still found a home on the small screen, making many subsequent appearances then in the Me Decade. Cash still found a place on TV, making guest appearances everywhere (including a memorable one on Colombo). The visual medium was his forte then, as he appeared in films and documentaries for the rest of the 70's. Artistically though, he'd have to wait until the 90's and his work with Rick Rubin when he got his mojo back. But these DVD's remind us of a great artist at one of his peaks and serve as an important piece of history- before the advent of Garth Brooks, Cash was one of country's greatest ambassadors.