Country singer Johnny Cash was a performer whose appeal transcended social barriers. His history of defying categorization is apparent in the newly released The Best of the Johnny Cash TV Show 1969-1971, a two-DVD compilation pulled from the prime-time variety show Cash hosted on ABC from the summer of 1969 to March 1971. For one hour a week, cultural divisions eased slightly under his guide.
In 1969, of course, the Vietnam War raged, and the nation was divided into those maintaining the wisdom of the government and those vehemently questioning the country's values. In many parts of the U.S., you could even be jailed (for "vagrancy") for sporting long hair. Minorities marched in the streets, demanding their right to be treated fairly as Americans.
On The Johnny Cash Show, those generational and racial divides lost distinction next to the inspired musical collaborations Cash fostered. On one hand, he presented and performed with the more conservative kings and queens of country music — Merle Haggard, George Jones, Loretta Lynn, and Ray Price. The gents wore pompadour hairstyles and the ladies wore elegant gowns and sang about love and standing by your man.
But Cash also presented young upstarts — Neil Young with shoulder-length locks, looking like a ragamuffin Angel of Death, singing the junkie's lament "The Needle and the Damage Done." Derek and the Dominoes performed Chuck Willis' '50s R&B ballad "It's Too Late" rather than their hit single "Layla." The program also showcased musical summits — Cash and rockabilly pioneer Carl Perkins joined Eric Clapton for a rousing version of Perkins' "Matchbox," and Cash and Louis Armstrong reprised Armstrong's "Blue Yodel #9." Bluegrass innovator Bill Monroe, R&B icons Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder, and blacklisted-in-the-'50s folk luminary Pete Seeger also appeared on the show.
The Cash program proudly displayed the roots and branches of "Americana" long before the genre tag existed. And despite the political and social dissent in the world around it, The Johnny Cash Show reminded the public of what could unite us instead of what divided us.