Show Me the Cash
“When will those Johnny Cash TV shows become available?” has probably been the question raised with me most often in my role as video columnist here. We have, at last, something of an answer in the new compilation The Best Of The Johnny Cash TV Show (CMV/Columbia/Legacy), which draws four hours of complete performances (as opposed to episodes) from Johnny’s varied and adventurous Ryman Auditorium-based series of 1969-’71. Uninterrupting commentary, mainly from Kris Kristofferson and John Carter Cash, places the show in its era and in Cash’s own musical timeline.
It can seem astonishing now that one show would include — and be allowed to include — performances from George Jones, Merle Haggard, Bill Monroe, Derek & the Dominos, Creedence Clearwater Revival, the Carpenters, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, and Stevie Wonder. Cash’s duet with Louis Armstrong is here, as are performances from all of the show’s regulars, from Maybelle Carter to Carl Perkins to the Statler Brothers — and that moment when Johnny introduced “Sunday Morning Comin’ Down” uncensored. The same prime-time host offers a personal religious testament on-air (then “controversial” in itself) — and presents the long-network-blacklisted Pete Seeger.
Network TV demanded musical variety then, certainly. The difference was, Ed Sullivan exposed broad audiences to varied acts “from the Metropolitan Opera” and “now, for the youngsters out there — the Rolling Stones” in succession, whereas Johnny Cash suggests that the diverse acts from regional roots music and global pop really are from the same neighborhood: all his friends, and all musically related. This is a TV series that changed things.
There were 58 hourlong episodes of that show, so this set has to seem like a teaser for some eventual box set of the shows themselves. This format cannot really give the flavor of a given week’s ride through Cash performances, banter, guest songs and duets, “Ride This Train” theme salutes, and so on. And if slowly releasing whole shows unedited is good enough for “Hee-Haw”…
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, moving from black-and-white to “Living Color”, there was an often-overlooked precedent for much of what the Johnny Cash Show did later, and that was Tennessee Ernie Ford’s national network series “The Ford Show” (named for both the host and the show’s auto sponsor). Six volumes of three uncut episodes each (fascinating live commercials included) are now available directly from Ernie’s family at www.ErnieFord.com as The Ford Show Classics On DVD, Volumes 1-6. With his own extraordinary sphere incorporating “Shotgun Boogie”-type proto-rock, hard country, Broadway, pop, folk and gospel, Ernie can join right in with everyone from the Everly Brothers and Brenda Lee to Tony Bennett and Hoagy Carmichael.
There’s a rare appearance by Odetta (who sings Woody Guthrie’s “Pastures Of Plenty” no less, still during the blacklist era), songs from Ernie’s sometime sidekick and my childhood fave county singer Molly Bee, and a sketch on a hillbilly cooking class from Ernie and Minnie Pearl that is an outright comedy classic. Ford regularly opened the eyes and ears of the general populace to country and the country audience to other sounds, and had a hipster’s ease for dealing with Hollywood, where the show originated. And yeah, he does “Sixteen Tons” and so on. These discs are highly recommended; they will surprise you.
Another welcome surprise is a DVD-and-CD set taken from the last Nashville show by the great Waylon Jennings titled Waylon Jennings & The Waymore Blues Band: Never Say Die — The Final Concert Film (Columbia/Legacy). Taped in January 2000 at the Ryman, along with a half-hour backstage interview and rehearsal video to go with it, the whole 22-song DVD was then shelved, though there was a CD assembled from some of the numbers. (The informative liner notes for this one are from Rich Kienzle.) Waylon’s breathing is not what it once was, and he needs to sit to play and sing, but there are many moments when the singular spark is there as he works through a set made up mainly of ’70s hits and later “Waymore” blues numbers — plus surprises such as “The Weight” and, backstage, an informal “Philadelphia Lawyer”. The evening is filled out and kept moving via guest shots and duets with acts Waylon had encouraged — John Anderson, Travis Tritt and, no kidding, early Montgomery Gentry, plus four touching numbers from and with wife Jessi Colter. (There’s a pretty funny, leering Waylon and Cash duet on a song clearly aimed at Jessi on the aforementioned Cash set, by the way.)
Some of Philadelphia’s long-established, generally acoustic-oriented “World Cafe” shows from WXPN radio have been aired in limited HDTV broadcasts by those who can view such things, and a number of those shows are now available for anybody’s DVD in the new On Stage At World Cafe Live series (Decca Vision). Among the first batch of titles released are hourlong shows from Rhett Miller, Shemekia Copeland, Rita Coolidge, Marshall Crenshaw and Steve Forbert. These are pretty straightforward affairs visually, the HD “you are there” clarity having been deemed sufficient in that regard, but there’s much to be said for the avoidance of pointlessly intrusive cutting and camera-jumping that too often go with attempts to do “more.”
In Miller’s show, it’s mainly the man alone, in pop mode, with his strum-only guitar. There’s the charm and the witty songs, including takes on more familiar Old 97’s stuff, but to these eyes and ears, his solo acoustic work often seems to beg for the rock; when he brings out his side band, the Believers, for numbers later in his set, it’s an upgrade.
Copeland is in dependably powerful blues-meets-soul form. Rita Coolidge is shown working some off-speed change-ups reasonable for this stage of performing life, not black-leather-pants-with-Kris screamers as in the ’70s; the accent is on American jazz standards, with references to Julie London, Peggy Lee and Rosemary Clooney, plus a bit of blues and soul.
Perhaps most comfortable in this setting are Forbert and Crenshaw, working the coffeehouse-style stage with the ease and variations they’ve brought to such occasions for decades. The Crenshaw set only slightly overlaps the numbers shown on his Live From The Stone Pony DVD a couple of years back.
The ever-widening Live From Austin TX DVD series (New West) keeps bringing out roots-related shows from across the history of “Austin City Limits”, even as the show itself seems to have abandoned roots for pure pop. Current standouts — for the performances as well as the relative unavailability of video from the artists — are Dave Alvin, from 1999, and Eliza Gilkyson, from 2001. Sets from Lynyrd Skynyrd and Jerry Lee Lewis are not from the prime-time moments of either — though in a rare call, Jerry Lee does a hymn, “In The Garden”.
Also watch for:
Les Paul: Chasing Sound (Koch Vision) and Atlantic Records: The House That Ahmet Built (Atlantic/American Masters). Both of these unusually revealing biodocs were seen on PBS recently, but both, built on cooperation of their extraordinary, pop-music-shaping subjects — the very much alive Les Paul and the late Ahmet Ertegun — are worth keeping.
There are dozens of video documentaries heralding local music scenes being made all the time (trust me), but there’s an unusually good one of wider resonance called Towncraft: Notes From A Local Scene (Matson Films) regarding the seemingly unlikely but rich ’80s-’90s punk rock scene in Little Rock, Arkansas.
Sam Bush: On The Road (Sugar Hill) captures Sam in a typically rhythmic and adventurous mando and fiddle show from just last summer. The video of “River’s Gonna Run” with Emmylou Harris and Buddy Miller is included.