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Johnny Cash's Block Party

How the Man in Black brought America together via a TV variety show.

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The Nixon years were not a good period for national unity. With American soldiers dying in Vietnam and American cites suffering the after-effects of resistance to the civil rights movement, the country saw its own citizens pitted against each other — Nixon's Silent Majority against a growing, vocal counterculture.

Amid these rifts, there was a cohort of pop musicians who sought a third way: progressive, pluralistic, in opposition to the worst of America's mainstream culture yet also respectful, even reverent, of tradition. This included, perhaps most prominently, the music made — together or independently — by Bob Dylan and the Band at the time, records such as Dylan's John Wesley Harding and Nashville Skyline, the Band's Music From Big Pink and The Band, and the jointly recorded "basement tapes," which wouldn't see release until later the next decade. Other artists, such as Creedence Clearwater Revival, the Byrds, and Neil Young, followed similar paths.

But the artist who embodied this spirit as much as anyone was Johnny Cash, who brought the spirit of a pluralistic, progressive, yet deeply traditional American culture into homes across the nation via his ABC-TV variety show, The Johnny Cash Show, which broadcast from Nashville's Ryman Auditorium between June 1969 and March 1971.

The Best of the Johnny Cash TV Show, a four-hour, two-DVD collection of 66 musical performances selected from the show's 58 episodes, marks the first time any material from The Johnny Cash Show has been released on video or DVD. The collection, which was released in late September, is hosted by Kris Kristofferson, of whom Cash was an early champion, scoring a hit with Kristofferson's song "Sunday Morning Coming Down" and singing a full version of the song — including the lyric "wishing, God, that I was stoned" — on the show, against the wishes of ABC. Other interview subjects include Cash's son, John Carter Cash, Hank Williams Jr., for whom Cash was something of a surrogate father, and people who worked on the show, including bass player Marshall Grant and hairdresser Penny Lane.

Cash's first show featured Bob Dylan, rarely seen on television and still considered a counterculture icon despite the recent release of his more traditional Nashville Skyline album. But it also featured Cash and his standard ensemble — wife June Carter, band the Tennessee Three, sidekick Carl Perkins, and backup singers the Statler Brothers — doing the Perkins-penned remembrance of family gospel sing-alongs, "Daddy Sang Bass." And that's how it went. With the Vietnam War tearing the country apart, Cash did his best to put it back together again on national TV every week, reconciling the rebellious impulses of the counterculture with the home-and-family traditionalism of older, more mainstream America. It was like a country equivalent to Dave Chappelle's Block Party with a much larger audience.

In the days before punk, disco, and hip-hop pulled American music in such far-flung directions, it was easier to insist on such a musical big tent, of course, and The Johnny Cash Show was both tribute to and tutorial on the blues and country roots of American pop music.

There were limits, despite Cash's impeccable taste and ornery insistence on having his show reflect that taste. There's no Sly & the Family Stone or James Brown here, for instance, though Stevie Wonder does give a sharp reading of his tough-minded "Heaven Help Us All" (with a key lyric likely to challenge much of the show's audience: "Heaven help the black man if he struggles one more day/Heaven help the white man if he turns his back away"). But rarely (James Taylor's wispy reading of "Sweet Baby James" is an exception) does a performance collected here seem unworthy of the show.

Within the context of Cash's self-imposed musical mission, the breadth of music (and musicians) on display is tremendous. Pre-rock legends are given the showcases they deserve, including Bill Monroe doing "Blue Moon of Kentucky" and, most notably, an appearance by Louis Armstrong. The true titan of 20th-century American popular music, Armstrong is eight months from death and frail, when he appears, but he's magnetic, playing trumpet alongside Cash as they duet on Jimmie Rodgers' "Blue Yodel #9," which Armstrong had recorded with Rodgers in 1930.

The collection also captures some of Cash's early rock contemporaries (including Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis), country stars (Loretta Lynn, Conway Twitty), then-emerging songwriters (Kristofferson, Tony Joe White)), and some of the biggest and best rock acts of the day (CCR, Neil Young).

Highlights are plentiful: Ray Charles delivers a spectacular, bluesy reinvention of Cash's own "Ring of Fire," to a standing ovation. Cash and George Jones swap vocal sound effects on a duet of Jones' "White Lightning." Cash and Merle Haggard duet on Haggard's beautiful prison ballad "Sing Me Back Home." Eric Clapton leads Derek & the Dominoes through an inspired rendition of the Chuck Willis R&B standard "It's Too Late." You sense Cash's drive to unite different audiences when he greets the British rock band onstage at the Ryman after the performance and says, "I really am proud to see that the people here love you like they do." This followed immediately by Perkins joining Cash and Clapton on a fierce version of Perkins' Sun-era hit "Matchbox." And some of the finest moments come when the show is winnowed down to Cash and his own extended musical family, particularly on gospel numbers.

For those who weren't privileged to see the show at the time, The Best of the Johnny Cash TV Show is a revelation, but these 66 performances seem to be only a sliver of what Cash presided over during the show's 58 episodes. The entire series deserves to be given new life, if not on DVD, then via new television broadcasts. (CMT, are you listening?) Hopefully, The Best of the Johnny Cash TV Show draws enough attention to make that happen.

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