This is a landmark release of 66 classic performances from Johnny Cash's 1969-71 network TV show which has, until now, been available only through grainy tapes from Ebay.
The guest list reads like a who's who of popular music: Bob Dylan, who was in town recording Nashville Skyline, played on the debut show; Roy Orbison, Stevie Wonder, Neil Diamond, Creedence Clearwater and Jonie Mitchell all appear at the peak of their form and,as far as 1970's country music goes, it would easier to list who does not appear.
To anyone only familiar with Cash through the biopic "Walk the Line", this will be a revelation. Joaquin Phoenix's moody,obsessive loner is hard to reconcile with the grinning,gregarious, self-assured singer just a year down the line from his redemptive marriage to June Carter.
Cash is a great host.His duet with Louis Armstrong includes just the right note of respectful defererence and he welcomes a nervous Eric Clapton with the nice touch of listing all the members of Derek and the Dominoes. Clapton trading licks with Carl Perkins is one of the standout moments,as the (then) new kid on the block gets to play with one of his mentors.Another highlight is an outrageous performance from Jerry Lee Lewis who reminds us just how good Sun's last survivor was back then.
Of course, this is a 37 year-old network variety show so some of the banter is pretty cheesy and the comedy pretty toe-curling.
The commentary, which sets the scene for several performances, makes the valid point that the show played a groundbreaking role at the time in crossing the divide between conservative mainstream America and the counter culture of the youth movement.This was a time when US society was torn apart by Vietnam and the appearance of long-haired artists like James Taylor and Neil Young, together with black-listed Pete Seeger was a radical statement by the inclusive-thinking Cash.
The commentary is not always helpful though, especially when the contributions are cut into the music. Cash's powerful attack on the treacherous treatment of Native Americans, "As Long as the Grass Shall Grow", is ruined by being inter-spliced with talking heads; and although Kris Kristofferson and Hank William Jr make some perceptive contributions there is frankly too much from Johnny Cash's son who,being only a babe in arms when the show aired,can scarcely bring much perspective to the cause. But we can thank the lady hair-stylist for a gem about Linda Ronstadt trying to appear in a mini skirt, minus knickers.There is a unexpected frisson to watching Ronstadt's performance after you've heard that!
Anyway- buy the double DVD. Watch it. Enjoy it. Celebrate the way popular music was, in one of its heydays, when performers plugged their guitars into amps,played live,were authentic and creative and different.And celebrate the hot-wired and happy genius that was Johnny Cash.