Friday, February 8, 2008

Remembering the Man in Black

We weren't much of a fan of country music when "The Johnny Cash Show" came along in 1969. We liked rock music. And some rock music fans wrongly associated all country music with superpatriotism in the "I'm Proud to Be an Okie From Muskogee" mode.
But Johnny Cash and his show was different. Cash not only welcomed all kinds of music, including rock, but he embraced the downtrodden and even allowed a cross-section of political opinion, something not often seen in those days. And though his show was only on TV through three TV seasons, it made an impression on me and everyone who watched it
That is why "The Johnny Cash Show: The Best of Johnny Cash 1969-1971" will be in our top 10 DVDs for the year, even this early in 2008. The two-disc set features 66 performances from the landmark show. And even those don't begin to cover the wide berth of musical talent and influence the Man in Black's show presented.
Just the guest list of performers on the set gives you an idea, though. There's George Jones, doing a medley of his hits including the classic "White Lightning." James Taylor, just an up and coming talent at the time, sings "Sweet Baby James." Neil Young gives a stark, powerful performance of "The Needle and the Damage Done," a song about drug abuse that Johnny Cash himself was a victim of in his younger days. Jerry Lee Lewis, with his usual (in those days, anyway) cocky demeanor, gives a seminal performance of his rock classic "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On." Bill Monroe performing his classic "Blue Moon of Kentucky." And that's just the beginning.
Several of the performers and performances on the set go beyond just deserving a mere mention. They are outright stunners. Louis Armstrong and Johnny Cash get together on "Blue Yodel #9," which Cash introduces as a recreation of an old Satchmo recording session. When Satchmo blew the first few notes of the song, it hit us like a ton of bricks. It was that good.
Similarly, the two tracks by Derek and the Dominoes, led by Eric Clapton, are incredible. First, there's "It's Too Late," then Clapton, Cash, Carl Perkins and the band jam on Perkins' "Matchbox." Fantastic.
Bob Dylan, then pretty much a recluse, and Cash had something in common -- they were bold but individual, guys whose musical leanings were guided only by themselves. Dylan and Cash were great friends and recording buddies. Dylan's appearances on the Cash show, set around the time of the "Nashville Skyline" album, could only be called "events." This set includes "I Threw It All Away" and a duet with Cash on "Girl From the North Country."
And the spirit of his father was never more present in Hank Williams Jr. than when he performs a medley of Hank Sr.'s songs, including "You Win Again," "Cold Cold Heart" and "I Can't Help It If I'm Still In Love With You."
Of course, the clips of Cash himself really show why we crowded to the TV set on nights the show aired. Cash's songs, such as "Ring of Fire," "Ride This Train," "Man In Black" (in one of his first performances after he wrote it ... he admitted to needing the words on a cue card), "Folsom Prison Blues", "A Boy Named Sue" and "I Walk the Line" became familiar friends to his viewers. (Just one minor complaint is the absence of "Orange Blossom Special," which became a real highlight and an audience favorite.)
After seeing this double set, we hope another will be on the way. There are so many great clips not included here. To name just a few clips that have been circulating among collectors: there's the Monkees (post-Peter Tork), Mahalia Jackson, Roger Miller, Tex Ritter and Joe South.
In addition to the DVD, Cash fans will also want the audio single disc The Johnny Cash Show: The Best of Johnny Cash. It has 17 tracks, including a couple that aren't on the DVD.