The Johnny Cash Show, a summer replacement for ABC's Hollywood Palace variety program, got off to an impressive start on June 7, 1969, with performances by Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell.
Dylan, friends with Cash since they met at the 1964 Newport Folk Festival, was making his first public performance since the Woody Guthrie benefit in January 1968. Dressed in a simple black suit and white shirt, he performed "I Threw It All Away" and "Living the Blues." Cash and Dylan also dueted on "Girl from the North Country," which they'd recently recorded for Dylan's country-flavored LP Nashville Skyline.
"Dylan was nervous because he was out of his real element," Bill Walker, the show's musical director, tells Ultimate Classic Rock. "Dylan was nervous because he'd never worked with other Nashville musicians, other than the couple of people he had playing with him. But then Johnny had a great way of massaging people's feelings. He could talk with them and they'd be just fine."
Taped on May 1, 1969 at Nashville's Ryman Auditorium, Cash, Dylan and Mitchell actually performed a collection of songs that would be used throughout the first season. The June 7 premiere also featured Cash singing "Folsom Prison Blues," "The Wall," "Greystone Chapel," and Dylan's "It Ain't Me Babe" as a duet with wife June Carter Cash. Mitchell sang her hit "Both Sides Now."
"Bob Dylan, as long as he was singing, he was just great," Walker said. "He could do it better than anybody I've ever heard. He and Johnny got on real well. Joni Mitchell didn't need much help; she was a pretty capable musician. Joni was real professional and she was sweet and she was really nice to work with."
Louisiana fiddler Doug Kershaw was also featured on the debut episode. "Doug Kershaw was a breeze," Walker added. "Johnny liked the Cajun music and he thought that would give it a different flavor. He was wild; he always had those strings hanging off his bow. He was a trip."
June would become a regular on the show, along with the Carter family, Carl Perkins, the Tennessee Three and the Statler Brothers, whose "Flowers on the Wall" was a Top 10 hit in 1965.
"Johnny liked being surrounded by his own people," Don Reid, of the Statlers, tells Ultimate Classic Rock. "I think that's why he liked having us there and June and the Carters and people that kept him calm and made him feel like Johnny Cash."
Everything about Cash's distinctive persona remained intact, something Reid said was important to the country icon. "Whenever you're doing the first of anything, you never are settled," Reid said. "John went into it with a positive attitude: 'If I'm gonna do this, I'm gonna do it right.' He was able to keep the image that he'd already created. He was able to keep the clothes, the black look. He had that rough-hewn attitude and that was his charm, of course."
Dylan was the first guest to tape and didn't realize that the speakers in the auditorium did not work. Audience members had to strain to hear his voice. Dylan graciously re-did his songs once the glitches were solved. But problems became a familiar part of taping a show at the Ryman, the age-old home of the Grand Ole Opry.
"We had terrible conditions there," Walker said. "I was conducting the orchestra down in the pit, and I had rats the size of a small cat running across my feet. They'd frighten the heck out of you. I got used to it after a while. The first time they wheeled a sound crane on the stage it fell through the stage. Of course, the stage was eaten up with termites."
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Reid had similar recollections: "There were always a lot of snafus because we were taping live in the Ryman. That was just an old church turned into a concert hall turned into a TV studio and it was rough, rough. The problem with the speakers was minor because there was always something going on that you would never run into in a television studio. It was not air conditioned and we did this stuff in the heat. You could sit in the Ryman and look up and see daylight through little holes between the slats in the roof. So there was nothing comfortable about it. But it was so historic you couldn't afford not to do it there."
Still, the first-night technical issues combined with Dylan's unique personality made for some tense moments, Reid said. "Dylan never really has done much television. He and John palled up at a folk festival in the mid-'60s so they had a mutual respect for one another as writers. So it was pretty easy for John to get him," Reid said. "Dylan is a very kind of uncomfortable guy. He's not the coolest person in the world, kind of jumpy and looked like he's on edge. You'd not quite know what to expect. I think sometimes he didn't know what to expect of himself next."
Over what would become a two-year run, stars such as Eric Clapton, Linda Ronstadt, Neil Young and James Taylor also appeared on the Cash show. Walker, who worked with Cash for 30 years, said the mix of musical guests reflected both Cash's personal interests and the goal of appealing to a nationwide audience.
"Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell were two of John's favorites. He really liked the two of them - and they were really hot at that time," Walker said. "In those days, you had to appeal to the urban people in New York and Los Angeles, Chicago, places like that. You couldn't just put on a straight country-type show. You had to have a little bit of a flavor about it that people in New York would recognize, because we were trying to win a whole new audience. Dylan had the audience already and so did Joni Mitchell to a point. So that was part of the reason that they were picked."
The Johnny Cash Show would wrap on March 31, 1971 but the friendship between Dylan and Cash lasted almost four decades until Cash's death in the 2003.
"Johnny was and is the North Star; you could guide your ship by him - the greatest of the greats then and now," Dylan wrote after Cash passed. "Truly he is what the land and country is all about, the heart and soul of it personified and what it means to be here; and he said it all in plain English."
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