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Johnny Cash + various artists - The Best of the Johnny Cash Show Print E-mail
Monday, 01 October 2007
format:    Dolby Digital 5.1 DVDs (2)
performance:    8
sound:    7
released:    2007
label:    Sony Legacy
reviewer:    John Sutton-Smith

ImageThe legend of Johnny Cash continues as the plethora of collections and box sets depicting and defining the country icon’s catalogue in every possible permutation has a new and essential addition in The Best of The Johnny Cash TV Show.

The two-DVD set contains 66 of the literally hundreds of performances on the 58 episodes of Cash’s musical variety show that ran for two seasons, from June 1969 to March of 1971. A single-disc CD audio version of the compilation’s soundtrack will also be available.

The Johnny Cash Show exposed the American TV audience to a daring and varied array of musical talent, in a warm family setting, that was rarely seen on any other program, then or since. The often eclectic performers were handpicked by Cash, and for many it was their first network appearance.

The DVDs, introduced by Kris Kristofferson (who owes much of his career to Cash) from the church-like hall of the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville where the series was shot, feature performances from an incredible list of legendary names like Bob Dylan, Stevie Wonder, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Derek and the Dominoes and Creedence Clearwater Revival. At the time, the show was genuinely groundbreaking television. Many of the rock artists sang stridently about peace, drugs and the anti-war movement when country was still in a conservative corner of American society.
Combined with classic American artists like Ray Charles, Bill Monroe, the Everly Brothers, Loretta Lynn, Jerry Lee Lewis, Chet Atkins, Louis Armstrong and Roy Orbison, there was an abiding musical quality to the show, especially when Cash collaborated for some remarkable, seemingly informal duets that are truly the treasures of this set.

With a few exceptions, the show was filmed at the Ryman in front of a mostly Southern and eager country music audience. There is a warm, down-home atmosphere unusual for network television even then, and much of this is due to Cash himself, whose image at the time was transformed by the groundbreaking show and the mainstream audience that tuned in. His interplay and rapport with artists young and old, country and counterculture, helped establish him as an American persona, beyond the limits of country music.

The first disc features more of the contemporary pop and rock acts that Cash particularly admired, including Dylan, Joni, Creedence, James Taylor, Linda Ronstadt, Neil Diamond and the ever-present Carl Perkins. There are many highlights here: the story of June Carter refusing to let Ronstadt on stage with her husband before putting on some panties; the obscenely young and beatifically awe-struck Eric Clapton, when Perkins and Cash himself joined Derek and the Dominos onstage for a memorable and moving version of Perkins' old-time chestnut, “Matchbox”; an equally reverent and youthful Dylan almost jamming on the classic “Girl from the North Country”; or Johnny just talking to the camera about religion, poverty, the Indians, America, plain-spoken and from the heart, before segueing into one of his, or another’s, classic anthem like “Ride This Train” or Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land.” These are remarkable one-of-a-kind performances, with a real glimpse of the artist, unlike perhaps Ed Sullivan or even Midnight Special.

Prominent country artists naturally were featured, and the second disc is full of singular efforts from George Jones, Ray Price, Tammy Wynette (with a brilliant “Stand By Your Man”), a young, shorthaired and beardless Hank Williams Jr., a similar Waylon Jennings, Lynn, Merle Haggard and Charley Pride.

A highlight was always when Johnny himself performed on the show, solo or with wife June, and always backed by members of his road show band including the Tennessee Three -- Marshall Grant, bass, W.S. Holland, drums, Bob Wooten, guitar -- on iconic classics like “Ring Of Fire,” “Man In Black” or “Folsom Prison Blues.”

Cash’s stint on TV was a short but pivotal moment in his enormous career, and a pivotal moment for television as well. Music and TV have always had a tempestuous relationship, and the Johnny Cash TV Show, with its seamless segues of casual Cash conversations, hinted fruitlessly at how the two might work together in the future. ABC cancelled the show after two years, along with Andy Williams and many other like-minded music/variety shows, in a sea change for network television. Only Cash’s show, however, really captures that particular moment in time all these years later, largely because of the unvarnished honesty and warmth imbued by the man in black as host, but also for some unique, very special musical moments.

Originally recorded live for television at the Ryman, the sound captures the spontaneous sense of the audience and the truly live feel of the show. What may be lost in sonic purity is trumped by the excitement in the room. Also, this is 40 years ago; no lip-synching here. Every artist is singing live and unvarnished and that is what makes for some extraordinarily special moments.

Intercut with many of the performances are some honest, humorous and revealing commentary from Johnny and June’s son John Carter Cash, as well as Tennessee Three bassist Marshall Grant, Hank Williams, Jr., musical arranger Bill Walker and hairstylist Penny Lane.

Most of the shows were reportedly originally recorded on two-inch quad videotape, standard at the time but now out of use. These tapes or, on occasion, a post-production master tape, were restored and digitized with no alteration and then edited for DVD. Both stereo and 5.1 Surround Sound mixes were created from the original mono recordings, making for a clean, crisp and warm rendition of Cash's atmospheric stage sound, and the wide variety of musical performance styles.

In addition to the two-DVD “expanded edition,” there will also be a single DVD version of this title featuring 21 highlights of the show, and an audio-only CD as well. The two-DVD version comes in digi-pack with deluxe slipcase.

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