January-February 2008

ARTIST: VARIOUS

TITLE: THE BEST OF THE
JOHNNY CASH TV SHOW

LABEL: COLUMBIA/LEGACY

RELEASE DATE: 2008

By Dave Soyars

  johnny_cash_tv_show_cd_375.jpgIt’s hard to imagine in this hundreds-of-channels-at-the-touch-of-a-button age, but not so very long ago- during my lifetime, in fact, TV was home to very few programming choices, and any music, particularly good music, was rarely found. Variety shows like the Ed Sullivan Show would have the occasional pop act between the dancing elephants and such, and there were occasional shows dedicated to pop music, but vaudeville, rather than anything current, was the benchmark.

So it’s all the more impressive that it was not an ambitious musician of the rock generation, which was (arguably) at its boldest artistic point, but the most successful mainstream country artist of his time that most effectively bridged the gap between musicians of various genres in the late 1960s. For two seasons spanning a year and a half, on a major network during prime time at that, the Johnny Cash show was not just the best place on TV to find traditional country artists like George Jones and Waylon Jennings, but the also home to the best of the then-current singer/songwriters storming the charts at the time, such as James Taylor and Joni Mitchell, both of whom appear here, the latter in a duet with the host. Genre was not a determining factor, rather a certain level of quality and devotion to singing a good song. This CD of some of the best music done on the show (which ran from 1969-1971) is loaded with great performances.

Thing is, it’s not as if Johnny just got hip when Rick Rubin discovered him. Johnny was tuned in to all kinds of great music from the very beginning. And as big a commercial success as he was at the time, he was no purist. His own songs, now classics, such as Flesh and Blood and Daddy Sang Bass, are the basis of some of the best performances here. But he also knew a good song when he heard it, whatever the source, be it then up-and-coming Kris Kristofferson or from Eric Clapton’s Derek and the Dominoes, the country influence on which Johnny is only too eager to point out in his introduction to their version of the Chuck Willis hit, It’s Too Late.

The other performances are likewise uniformly great and adventurous. Ray Charles turns Cash’s Ring of Fire into a lowdown blues, to huge, well-deserved applause from the studio audience. Jones and Roy Orbison both do medleys of their best-known hits. Tammy Wynette sings the heck out of Stand by Your Man.

Even the spoken bits occasionally heard between the songs are wonderful; Cash gently makes fun of ex-roomate Jennings, but also announces Jennings’ fresh Grammy win to the audience in a voice bursting with pride in his good friend. In addition to his trademark “hello, I’m Johnny Cash