(Johnny Cash hated the idea of doing a circus-themed episode of his TV show, even fearing ABC would demand he sing “I Walk the Line” while holding a chimp. He ended up holding the chimp, but didn’t have to sing to it.)
We have praised The Johnny Cash Show, which ran on ABC from 1969 to 1971, as a show more serious about pop and rock music than variety shows of an earlier day. But according to Cash biographer Robert Hilburn, the show viewers saw was not the show Cash envisioned.
Cash thought he was making a country music show. ABC told the press it would include stars from all fields. Production company Screen Gems suggested the show would be “85 percent music and some comedy.” Cash insisted that Screen Gems hire a guy named Stan Jacobson, who ended up neither a producer nor a talent booker but merely a writer. As a result, he and Cash had little input into the first-season guest list. They got Bob Dylan, whom Cash wanted, as well as Joni Mitchell, Gordon Lightfoot, Linda Ronstadt, and Creedence Clearwater Revival, but Screen Gems and ABC insisted on stars who would cross-promote other shows they owned, leading to appearances by the Cowsills and the Monkees, a random selection of Hollywood stars including Dan Blocker and Eddie Albert, and comedians including the rubber-faced Charlie Callas.
The Johnny Cash Show premiered in June 1969, at the same time the eventual #1 album Johnny Cash at San Quentin was released. It was not especially popular in big cities but was a smash in smaller ones and in rural areas. There was little question the show would be renewed for 1970. Cash insisted that the second season would have “more of my own people,” and it did. Stan Jacobson was promoted to co-producer, and the guest lists improved in the next two seasons: Merle Haggard, Marty Robbins, Loretta Lynn, Ray Charles, Charley Pride, Neil Diamond, Stevie Wonder, Louis Armstrong, Neil Young, the Staple Singers, James Taylor.
About the time the show launched, evangelist Billy Graham became Cash’s spiritual adviser, and Cash began appearing at Graham’s televised crusades. During the second season, the recurring “Ride This Train” travelogue segment frequently featured gospel songs. During an early third-season episode, Cash read a lengthy statement about his religious faith. “Lately I think we’ve made the devil pretty mad because on our show we’ve been mentioning God’s name . . . . and [Satan] may be coming after me again, but I’ll be ready for him. In the meantime, while he’s coming, I’d like to get in more licks for Number One.” Jacobson believed it was the turning point in the show’s demise—that viewers were turned off by the show’s increasing religiosity—although Hilburn points out that variety shows were falling out of favor then. And 1971 was also a time in which networks continued to get rid of rural-themed (and rural-popular) shows to chase after more affluent urban viewers.
With declining ratings, ABC insisted on a format change to what it called “theme nights,” some of which Cash hated. In the spring of 1971, ABC announced the show would not be back in the fall. Cash would later criticize “all the dehumanizing things that television does to you.” But he appears to have been caught in the same undertow that has claimed a lot of talented people in TV—what happens when a strong artistic vision clashes with a more powerful partner’s need for ratings and money.
The TV experience may have felt dehumanizing to Cash, but it resulted in three of the most humane songs he ever recorded. “Sunday Morning Comin’ Down,” written by Kris Kristofferson, first appeared in February 1970 on “Ride This Train.” Cash sang it live on the April 8 show. (It didn’t come without controversy that night: Cash had to argue with a network rep to preserve the line “I’m wishin’ Lord that I was stoned,” which the network wanted changed to “I was home.”) “What Is Truth” is what Hilburn calls “a less confrontational take on Dylan’s defense of youth in ‘The Times They Are a Changing.'” It was a powerful message in the spring of Kent State, especially amid growing exasperation with the antiwar movement and the counterculture among older and more conservative Americans—Cash’s fan base. “Man in Black,” in which Cash explains that he dresses in black in solidarity with the downtrodden (despite having worn black onstage for most of his career), was taped before an audience of college students at Vanderbilt University late in 1970.
As Hilburn observes, the songs “largely established Cash as a symbol of American honor, compassion, and struggle,” neither blindly reactionary nor too much for Mrs. and Mrs. Middle America at the precise moment when such things seemed impossible. They’re the lasting legacy of The Johnny Cash Show.