EASY ED’S BROADSIDE: A Look Back at ‘The Johnny Cash Show’
ABC TV Promotional Photo 1969/IMDb.com
Bill Carruthers was in his late 20s in 1959 when he got the nod to become the director of The Soupy Sales Show as it became nationally syndicated. He moved his family to Los Angeles from Detroit, and eventually worked mostly as a director, creator, and producer of game shows including The Newlywed Game, The Dating Game, Give-N-Take, The Neighbors, Second Chance, and my personal favorite, Lee Trevino’s Golf For Swingers. He formed his own self-titled production company and along with Screen Gems’ Joel Stein produced The Johnny Cash Show for ABC.
Between its debut on June 7, 1969, and until its end on March 31,1971, there were 58 episodes taped at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville. Along for the ride with Cash was his wife, June, The Carter Family, The Statler Brothers, Carl Perkins, and The Tennessee Three. It was originally a summer replacement for the Saturday night variety show Hollywood Palace, but it often landed in the top 20 of the Nielsen ratings, eventually making its way to a regular primetime rotation.
Featuring a blend of guests that were attuned to Cash’s own unique musical sensibilities and interests, along with the need of the producers to pander to the mainstream, it was occasionally used as a vehicle for promoting other shows. But the first show set the tone: Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, comedienne Fannie Flagg, and fiddle player Doug Kershaw.
That first summer of 1969 offered a genre-busting array of guests: Gordon Lightfoot, Linda Ronstadt, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Joe Tex, Glen Campbell, The Monkees, Marty Robbins, Merle Haggard, O.C. Smith, Odetta, Ian and Sylvia, Charley Pride, The Staple Singers, Creedence Clearwater Revival and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott.
In January 1970 the show was back on the air and the first show’s guests were Arlo Guthrie, Jose Feliciano, and Bobbie Gentry. Over the next few months Pete Seeger appeared twice, and on Feb. 11 Cash performed this classic duet with Ray Charles.
The 1971 roster of shows continued showcasing all forms of roots music, including gospel, folk, country, jazz, and rock. The Edwin Hawkins Singers, Derek and the Dominos, David Houston, The Dillards, James Taylor, Kitty Wells, Conway Twitty, Randy Scruggs, and Neil Young were just a few of the guests.
A particular highlight of the show was the appearance of Louis Armstrong. Two years earlier he was suffering from heart and kidney ailments that took him away from performing. In the summer of 1970 he was given the green light by his doctors to resume touring, and he appeared with Cash in October. Soon after, Armstrong had a heart attack that caused him to take another break for two months, and the following summer, on July 6, 1971, he passed away.
After two seasons, The Johnny Cash Show was cancelled, the victim of a cross-network “rural purge” designed to seek out a more contemporary primetime audience that was younger, urban, and suburban. It was an absolutely absurd decision, as Cash’s wide range of guests across different genres, his commitment to both social causes and religion, and his outlaw image made him a cross-generational icon.
The show inspired a chart-topping live album of the same name from Columbia Records, and with millions of mainstream fans from national television exposure, Cash and his troupe would tour frequently and successfully in the ensuing years. He would also be called to return to primetime television, hosting other variety shows and specials with June by his side. And the best thing? Almost all of the shows, either in their entirety or through highlight clips, are viewable free on YouTube. The complete list of guests can be found on the show’s IMDb page.
Let’s close this out with the final sign-off from the last show on March 3, 1971.
Many of my past columns, articles, and essays can be accessed at my own site, therealeasyed.com. I also aggregate news and videos on both Flipboard and Facebook as The Real Easy Ed: Americana and Roots Music Daily. My Twitter handle is @therealeasyed and my email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.