BLAIR'S DVD WATCH: Groundbreaking Country Music from Cash and Friends

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The Best of the Johnny Cash TV Show: 1969-1971 (Legacy)
If I knew as much about country music in 1969 as I do now, I would have appreciated The Johnny Cash Show a lot more during its three-summer run on network TV. As it was, I was a sometime watcher of the show—I’d tune in when folks like Bob Dylan, Neil Young, James Taylor, Creedence Clearwater Revival and Derek & the Dominoes were on; I wasn’t hip to George Jones or Marty Robbins or Waylon Jennings yet. In fact, I came to country music mostly through early ’70s rock bands—the Flying Burrito Brothers, Poco, the New Riders of the Purple Sage, even the Grateful Dead (who covered songs by Robbins and Merle Haggard and others)—but that’s a whole other story. As a kid growing up in the suburbs of New York, it was hard for me to get past the cornball side of country music culture, and the truly frightening couture of the late ’60s, early ’70s country world—all those ruffled shirts, light blue polyester suits and pompadours on the guys, and horrendous big hair and what looked like rejected chiffon prom gowns on the ladies. The popular TV show Hee-Haw, which my grandparents in Mount Airy, N.C., watched religiously, didn’t help matters, either. But I’m willing to admit now that my prejudices were probably stupid, and at the least based on extra-musical matters.

So with that in mind, I was intrigued to sit down and devour this mostly wonderful two-DVD collection of musical numbers from The Johnny Cash Show. The verdict? I had missed out on some really good stuff being so rigid back in the day! Oh, don’t get me wrong—the country fashions of the era truly are scary-ugly. It’s so distracting to see Mother Maybelle Carter, matriarch of the Carter Family (whom I now revere; I had no idea who they were in 1969), and three of her daughters, over-dressed and over-made-up singing backwoods tunes; it just seems wrong. Or Bill Monroe & His Bluegrass Boys singing “Blue Moon of Kentucky” on a garish set that is completely at odds with the down-home quality of their music. Yuck. The few short comedy bits by the Statler Brothers are pretty lame (they sing better, fortunately), and much as I love June Carter, her dumb-country-girl act distracts a little from her winsome personality as a singer. As for the original Man in Black himself—well, he’s magnificent throughout. Not only does he sing great (and with a wide variety of folks), but he’s a really charming host—always humble, appreciative of his guests (you should see him gush over Derek & the Dominos), casual but earnest.

Of course it’s the music that elevates these DVDs to their “must-buy” status. There’s Bob Dylan—in full Nashville Skyline bloom, as “normal” as he ever looked or sounded—singing “I Threw it All Away” and, with Cash, “Girl from the North Country.” Stevie Wonder sings the socially charged “Heaven Help Us All.” The aforementioned Derek & the Dominoes (with Eric Clapton, of course) tear it up on Chuck Willis’ bluesy “It’s Too Late” and then, joined by Cash and house band guitarist Carl Perkins, on “Matchbox.” Linda Ronstadt—looking hippie-country-gorgeous, joins Johnny for a heavenly version of the Carter Family’s “I Never Will Marry.” (Her appearance is unfortunately preceded by an unnecessary anecdote from the show’s wardrobe maven discussing Linda’s reluctance to wear undergarments—as if that’s a bad thing!) Neil Young and James Taylor each turn in spellbinding solo performances. Ray Charles completely “Ray-izes” “Ring of Fire” and a bit of “I Walk the Line.” Louis Armstrong sounds great backing Cash on Jimmy Rogers’ “Blue Yodel #9,” though Satchmo’s mugging is a bit much for my taste. And speaking of mugging, Roy Clark is in full goofy Hee-Haw mode during his numbers, but man, can he pick! Roy Orbison is other-worldly on “Crying,” and Joni Mitchell ethereal and lovely on an abbreviated “Long Black Veil” with Cash. In fact, if there’s a complaint to be leveled at these performances, it’s that many/most of them are way too short: verses are excised left and right and a few performers—George Jones, Hank Williams Jr. (paying tribute to his dad), Marty Robbins—get squeezed into frustratingly brief medleys: Somehow, a verse each of Robbins’ “Big Iron,” “Running Gun” and “El Paso” don’t quite tell any of those stories sufficiently.

The other complaint I have is with the prevalence of big string arrangements on way too many songs. Certainly that was the fashion in mainstream Nashville during that era (thanks to Billy Sherrill and others), but they add an unfortunate layer of syrup to many a fine song; I’d always rather just hear a good country band in the background. The show was shot at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, which was perfect for that combination of intimacy and excitement, and the sound is by and large quite good. (Actually the only number I noticed where the sound was actually bad is Jerry Lee Lewis’ “Whole Lot of Shakin’,” where you can barely hear his piano!)

But don’t let my nitpicking dissuade you from buying what really is a fantastic slice of period Americana. It’s Nashville in transition, as it tries to move into the mainstream, but still embracing its roots in old-time country music. And it’s a giant helping of Johnny Cash music, from his folk ballads to gospel-flavored tunes; it’s the whole gamut. What a titan! Kris Kristofferson offers some insights about the history of the show (and sings a number as his younger self), and the accompanying booklet provides valuable additional context. There are two different versions of the DVD available—a single or double-disc. Get the double, of course. More is better.

And say, how about a Volume II, with more Dylan, Joni, Neil and Linda, not to mention scads of others who played on the show but aren’t represented on these DVDs, from Bobbie Gentry to Arlo Guthrie to Jose Feliciano? I’ll buy it!