50 Years Ago on the Johnny Cash Show: Ray Charles, Arlo Guthrie, and Liza Minnelli

For the last year or so I’ve been setting the DVR to record “The Johnny Cash Show” on GetTV. Back in the golden era of variety shows, when everybody from Ed Sullivan and the Smothers Brothers to Carol Burnett and Glen Campbell had their own primetime shows, the Man in Black got his own one-hour program on ABC.

And it’s awesome. Watching it is like taking a time machine back to an entertainment environment that feels almost entirely alien to today’s slick world where everybody on tv has perfect teeth, appropriately plucked eyebrows, and the exact same measurements. “The Johnny Cash Show” is funky and sincere and goofy and weird in the best way.

According to Johnny Cash: The Life by Robert Hilburn, ABC was hoping to piggyback on the success of CBS’s new hit, “The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour.” Cash agreed to do it as long as he could tape the show at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville and select his own guests. The production company agreed to the former and evaded the latter.

It started out as just a summer replacement series, debuting on June 7, 1969 with guests Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, fiddler Doug Kershaw, and comedian Fannie Flagg, and running every Saturday night through September 27. The show’s initial run created enough buzz to be renewed for another 17 episodes, starting Wednesday nights in January 1970 and running through May 13, 1970.

The final season of the Johnny Cash Show kicked off 50 years ago today on September 23, 1970, from Music City USA, Nashville, Tennessee. It featured guests Ray Charles, Arlo Guthrie, and Liza Minnelli along with the usual family of regulars: June Carter, Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters, the Statler Brothers, Carl Perkins, and the Tennessee Three.

It was Ray Charles’ 40th birthday. Johnny Cash was 38. Arlo Guthrie was 23. And Liza Minelli was 24.

Like each episode in the series it begins with an instrumental, big band version of “Folsom Prison Blues” conducted by Australian arranger Bill Walker, and then our host introduces himself: “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash.”

• Johnny Cash – Medley: “One More Ride” / “Hey Porter” / “Orange Blossom Special” / “Folsom Prison Blues”

• Ray Charles and the Raylettes – “Finders Keepers”

Ray Charles – “I Walk the Line”

Ray Charles – “Ring of Fire”

From Love Country Style (Tangerine Records, 1970).

• Johnny Cash and Arlo Guthrie – “Oklahoma Hills”

• Arlo Guthrie – “I Could Be Singing”

• Arlo Guthrie – “Let’s Go Down to the River to Pray” (with Mother Maybelle, the Carter Sisters, and Statler Brothers)

• Johnny Cash – Come Along and Ride This Train (railroads)

Liza Minelli – “Lazy Bones” and “Stormy Weather”

From New Feelin’ (A&M, 1970).

• Johnny Cash – “Blistered” with Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters and Statler Brothers

• Johnny Cash – “Sunday Morning Coming Down”

• Johnny Cash and June Carter – “Help Me Make It Through the Night”

• Johnny Cash – “Peace in the Valley” (with the Statler Brothers and Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters)

And as always, Cash concludes the episode with a verse of “I Walk the Line.” Goodnight, Bill Walker!

I haven’t actually seen this episode on GetTV yet, but I am relying on detailed notes from the Country Music Hall of Fame.

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