getTV Talks JOHNNY CASH — An Interview With Michael Gray
1969 was a good year for Johnny Cash. He was newly married to June Carter, a woman he said “saved my life more than once.” His live album At San Quentin topped the Country and Pop album charts and yielded the Grammy-winning single “A Boy Named Sue,” the biggest hit of his career. And ABC gave him his own variety show — a 15-week summer replacement series that was so popular it joined the regular schedule the following January.
The Johnny Cash Show offered an eclectic mix of musical genres, with some of the biggest rock, folk, jazz, gospel, and country acts of the day. Also featured were Johnny’s former Sun Records labelmate Carl Perkins, vocal quartet the Statler Brothers, and backing trio The Tennessee Three, as well as June and The Carter Family. The large ensemble gave the show the feeling of a Grand Ole Opry revue — appropriate, since the series was recorded at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium, the Opry’s home since 1943.
The Man in Black’s humble charm shined through in his stories, songs, and breezy chats with big name guest stars. And you can see what we mean every weekend, as getTV presents two episodes of The Johnny Cash Show— Saturday and Sunday nights starting at 10p ET.
To learn more about Cash and his groundbreaking variety show, getTV recently spoke with Michael Gray, senior museum editor at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. The following are highlights of that conversation, edited and condensed for space and clarity.
getTV: Where and when was Johnny Cash born?
MICHAEL GRAY: He was born in Kingsland, Arkansas in 1932, but he grew up in Dyess, working in the cotton fields with his family.
Did his childhood define his musical persona?
Absolutely. The values he learned from his parents while growing up in a government resettlement colony for struggling farmers really set the tone for his music. And the death of his older brother [Jack, in 1944] affected him personally and musically for the rest of his life.
When did he catch the musical bug?
He was stationed in Germany with the Air Force in in the early 50s, and that’s where he started getting serious about songwriting. After his military stint was over, he settled in the Memphis area and teamed up with guitarist Luther Perkins and bassist Marshall Grant to perform gospel songs at churches and on local radio.
And Memphis was also…
The home of Sun Records. In the wake of Elvis Presley’s success at Sun, Johnny and his band auditioned for Sun Records producer/owner Sam Phillips, and Johnny quickly became one of the label’s most promising young artists.
When did he first meet June Carter?
Johnny met June at the Grand Ole Opry in 1956. They were both in their mid-twenties at the time, and they were both married to other people. In 1961, Mother Maybelle Carter and the Carter Sisters [June, Helen Carter and Anita Carter] joined Johnny Cash’s road show. Johnny and June were married on March 1, 1968.
Where was Johnny career-wise when the variety show started?
Johnny was really riding the wave of popularity in 1969. He was marching to his own beat with folk songs, protest songs, and controversial topics. He was kind of looked at as the spokesman for the disenfranchised.
How much of a presence did country music have on primetime TV at that time?
You would see country performers like Porter Wagoner, the Wilburn Brothers, and Flatt & Scruggs on syndicated shows, but a primetime, network show was a whole other league. The Johnny Cash Show broke new ground and extended the popularity of country music, and Johnny played a pivotal role bridging cultural divides as the 1960s ended.
There was an incredible diversity of performers on the show. Was Johnny behind that?
When ABC approached Johnny about hosting a TV variety show, he felt he had the leverage to make a couple of requests. He would choose the musical guests himself and the show would be shot in Nashville at the Ryman Auditorium, home of the Opry.
Did Nashville benefit from that?
Yes. His decision to film the show in Nashville was an endorsement of Music City at a time when many hipsters in New York, San Francisco or Hollywood may have considered Nashville a conservative, backwater town that was out of step with the times.
Were there challenges to shooting at the Ryman Auditorium?
The Opry moved from the Ryman in Nashville to the suburbs in 1974. Over the years, I would interview country artists and ask them if they missed it. A lot of them weren’t super romantic about it. “We didn’t even have air conditioning at the Ryman!” But Nashville is centrally located and had the most versatile musicians.Neil Young came to Nashville to appear on The Johnny Cash Show and recorded his album “Harvest” here. That’s the album with “Heart of Gold” and “Old Man” on it. A lot more folk and rock artists started coming here to record, thanks to the show.
Did Johnny and ABC ever clash about booking?
One clash that I’m aware of was Pete Seeger. Johnny was eager to have Pete on the show, but Pete had been blacklisted for his political beliefs. The network executives had to bow to Johnny’s insistence. Booking artists like Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, and Eric Clapton’s Derek and the Dominos really changed the perception of Nashville.
Did the show’s success extend to other media?
They put out a soundtrack album for The Johnny Cash Show that included his live version of “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” the Kris Kristofferson song. That was a hit.
The Johnny Cash Show ended after just two seasons. Had it decreased in popularity?
It was still very popular. But even in 1971, networks were still very reluctant to include an abundance of country music on the primetime air waves.
How did the show change Johnny’s career?
It really secured his status as a national icon. Johnny continued to tour in the 70s and beyond, with many of the same people he had on the show.
So, in a sense, he continued the vibe of the TV show, but for live audiences?
Yes, all over the U.S. and overseas! He became an international ambassador for country music.
How long has the Country Hall of Fame existed and what is your mission?
We opened in 1967. Our archives hold well over a million photographs, recordings, films, periodicals, books, and oral history interviews. The Wall Street Journal called us the Smithsonian of Country Music.
How are people inducted?
We induct three acts a year, not only stars, but also songwriters, session musicians, and producers. And it’s not the staff of the Hall of Fame that elects people, it’s the Country Music Association, the trade organization. We’re really an educational facility where people can learn more about country music.
Can fans interact remotely, especially at this unique moment in history?
There’s only so much of the country music story we can tell in the gallery space, so we flesh out those stories by doing hundreds of public programs a year: Q&A sessions with musicians, panel discussions, concerts, and film screenings. Many of these programs are filmed for our archive and available to stream on our website.
What do you think is Johnny Cash’s legacy?
One thing I hear a lot is “I’m not into country music but I love Johnny Cash.” Johnny Cash is one of the best known and most respected artists in the history of country music, but he also appealed to everyone: from prisoners, to young rock fans, to U.S. presidents. The Johnny Cash Show really cemented his superstar status.