When ABC asked Johnny Cash not to sing the line "wishing, Lord, that I was stoned" during a performance of Kris Kristofferson's "Sunday Morning Coming Down" on The Johnny Cash Show, Cash reportedly balked, saying, "There's nothing wrong with singing the truth." If one line could summarize Cash's enduring appeal, that's it. He was a consummate entertainer, but he was never slick. (Even on his show's première, the microphone picks up his humming along with the horn parts on "Ring Of Fire.") And when he stepped in front of the camera to introduce his guest stars, it was clear he honestly liked them. Between 1969 and 1971, Cash used his weekly variety show to showcase the likes of Bob Dylan, Carl Perkins, Stevie Wonder, Neil Young, Chet Atkins, and Eric Clapton. He taped the shows at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, and made each episode like a trip inside his head, through his love of trains, his compassion for Native Americans, his Christian faith, his tangled family ties, his memories of old country songs, and every pill he ever took.
That last point is significant. The double-disc Best Of The Johnny Cash TV Show DVD set compiles 60-odd performances from the series, interspersed with new interviews, and while that format robs fans of the chance to see whole episodes in context—clunky comedy interludes and all—the sampler approach does show more sides of Cash and his show. It shows Cash the historian, hosting Bill Monroe and Mother Maybelle Carter on a segment he called "Country Gold." It shows Cash becoming almost uncomfortably intimate during impromptu duets with Linda Ronstadt and Joni Mitchell. It shows him and his brother Tommy joining Phil, Don, and Ike Everly in a tentative performance of "That Silver Haired Daddy Of Mine" that speaks volumes about each man's respect for and fear of their fathers. And it shows Cash on the Vanderbilt campus, talking as frankly about his drug addiction as the network would allow. Cash never presented himself as a healed man; he was always broken but trying harder, and he was always inviting others to try along with him.
Key features: None.