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A while ago, during the first months (I think it was that long ago) the Soul of Rock 'n' Roll was live, I shared a clip of Bob Dylan doing a duet version of "Girl From the North Country" with Johnny Cash. That was a clip from the Johnny Cash TV Show and was actually one of the first times I heard about this aspect of Cash's career. Running from 1969 to 1971 and hosted by Johnny Cash himself, the show featured a variety of musical performances, small comedy sketches and more. I recently got to take a look at a DVD release of the Johnny Cash TV Show, called The Best of the Johnny Cash TV Show, and thought I'd share my thoughts on this eclectic, yet interesting collection.
There are 66 performances in total contained on these two DVDs including some great collaborations and plenty from the "Man in Black" as well. There's a few amusing comedy skits, equally amusing poetry from June Carter Cash, as well as some personal peeks at Johnny Cash the man. Organized loosely like a documentary hosted by Kris Kristofferson, there is also a few unique (and sometimes odd) tidbits about the show and some of what went on behind the scenes.
Although the musical guests do tend slightly towards folk, country and rockabilly, it isn't limited to those genres as there are great performances from a wide variety of musicians. Highlights include a great solo performance of "I Threw is All Away" by Bob Dylan, the soulful "Heaven Help Us All" by Stevie Wonder, James Taylor's "Sweet Baby James" (his major television debut I believe), the high energy "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On" with Jerry Lee Lewis in top form, and of course the country twang blues of "It's Too Late" in a rare performance of the short lived Derek and the Dominos. There's also a great solo take of "The Needle and the Damage Done" by a very young looking Neil Young, "Bad Moon Rising" from Creedence Clearwater Revival, Ray Charles' soulful cover of "Ring of Fire" as well as a rockin' take of "Blue Suede Shoes" by the one and only Carl Perkins. And lets not forget the songs from country legends like Loretta Lynn and Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys, a stirring tribute to Hank Williams, or great guitar work from Chet Atkins.
There's also all the Cash staples and tracks with the Carter Family, Statler Brothers and the Tennessee Three. "Ring of Fire", "I Walk the Line", "Boy Named Sue" and "Folsom Prison Blues" are all as authentic as ever and great to see, as is the first ever performance of "Man in Black", which received an almost immediate standing ovation. Cash also sings a killer cover of Kris Kristofferson's "Sunday Morning Coming Down" that Cash insisted on performing unedited and uncensored, going against the network's wishes.
The individual performances and the Johnny Cash tracks are all interesting, but where I think this set really excels is in the once in a lifetime collaborations between Cash and other artists. I was especially interested in the afore mentioned collaboration with Dylan, as well as seeing Cash and Carl Perkins jam with Clapton and the rest of Derek and the Dominos on "Matchbox", but there are plenty of other stand out moments as well. There's a gritty, bluesy take of "Polk Salad Annie" with Tony Joe White, a true slice of Americana in the form of "Cripple Creek" and "Worried Man Blues" with folk legend Pete Seeger, a unique collaboration with Louis Armstrong and a rough edged duet with Roy Orbison on "Pretty Woman". Perhaps my favorite song from the whole set though, is the spine tingling "Long Black Veil" with Joni Mitchel, who's vocals are a chilling match to Cash's baritone.
As I said, along with the musical performances there are a few other moments scattered throughout. The comedic sketches and poetry are nice additions, but not too compelling, while the personal moments are a bit more interesting. Seeing Johnny and June sing to their son, Cash talking rather openly about his drug use during a Q & A with college students, some of the documentary commentary and back stage moments, or simply the communication between the performers and how much fun they're having gives a real insight into Johnny Cash as a person and the type of atmosphere that surrounded the show. These are all nice additions that round out this set and make it a bit more historical than just a series of performances, without eclipsing the fact that the music is the centerpiece.
As with any DVD set, there are a few things that I didn't like and/or found a little strange or off putting.
First, disk one contains some documentary commentary from host Kris Kristofferson, Hank Williams Jr, members of the Tennessee Three and others who worked on the show, scattered throughout. Disk two though, didn't seem to have much commentary at all until about two thirds to three quarters of the way through, but did have good comments to close the set. I wasn't really sure why they chose to space it in this manor and not have comments more evenly spaced throughout. It's possible this is because there simply wasn't anything else to include, or because this set is available in both 1 and 2 disk formats though, so it's not a huge deal.
The second thing I found strange is how the DVD controls work, as you can play both disks all the way through and either view by chapter or by song. Each one (chapter or song) reacts differently to the "skip forward" controls though. Why not just make each song it's own chapter? This lead me to a moment while I was reviewing a few performances where I actually missed parts of the final commentary because I skipped through the songs instead of the chapters. Now, it's possible I just don't know how to accurately control a DVD player so don't let this bother you too much as other people might not have any trouble at all.
There are a few moments when the sound is a little sub par, but nothing extreme and overall the quality is very good. Also, I found myself wishing in a few cases that the artists performing were not backed by the house band (like on Roy Orbison's "Pretty Woman"), but that is not really a complaint about the DVD set as that just happened to be how they were originally arranged and recorded. This backing doesn't detract from the music too much though and so it's also not a major issue.
Overall, I really enjoyed the The Best of the Johnny Cash TV Show and don't think that any of the things I mentioned really detract from the set too much.
It works well as a testament to this part of Johnny Cash's career and the type of individual he was in life as well as serving as a slice of time from the period during which the show was on television. In fact, I think in a way, this collection has more of a time capsule feel than concert collections from single artists because of the breadth of the material it contains, giving a wider scope of society at the time. That isn't to say that it comes off like a 1960s documentary, but it does give an impression of a side of culture of the times that might otherwise be overlooked.
I recommend this set to Johnny Cash fans simply for all the once in a life time collaborations it contains, if not also for how well it documents the television show and a little bit about the man behind it. I'd also recommend this set to people who are interested in the history of classic rock, the 1960s etc as it does document this unique cultural part of that era.
So if you get the chance, check out The Best of the Johnny Cash TV Show. I think it's worth having in any music DVD collection. It's available in both 1 disk and 2 disk versions, so check out the set lists to decide which you'd prefer. Personally I'd go with this 2 disk version I've reviewed, but to each their own.
You can purchase the 2 disk set directly from Amazon here: The Johnny Cash Show: The Best of Johnny Cash 1969-1971
And the 1 disk version here: The Johnny Cash Show: The Best of Johnny Cash