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Looking back at the premiere of The Johnny Cash Show with Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell

When Johnny Cash became an unlikely star of television, his face didn’t quite fit the bill for a family-friendly variety show, but Cash’s affable charm made it work in a typically unconventional manner. He wasn’t your archetypal clean-cut host that continues to fill television screens today, but the first episode proved that Cash was born to make this programme.

Following the success of his two prison albums, Johnny Cash became hot property and his career took an unexpected twist. The network ABC approached him to present a variety-style show, which offered Cash an hour trial slot as a summer replacement for its mainstay Saturday night variety show The Hollywood Palace. Due to its primetime slot and wide-spanning audience, Cash did have to sacrifice some creative freedom. Still, overall, he got to give airtime to artists he admired that traditionally wouldn’t appear in such a mainstream programme.

The network came to a compromise with Cash. While he could book artists for the show, they insisted that Hollywood’s biggest names like Bob Hope and Kirk Douglas would appear alongside them to keep ratings and advertisements high.

In general, was a naturally relaxing feel to the programme thanks to it being filmed in Nashville at the Ryman Auditorium. For the debut episode, Cash pulled out all the stops. Not only did Joni Mitchell appear, but Doug Kershaw and Bob Dylan made the trip down to Tennessee too, on June 7th, 1969.

Musicians respected Cash, and this meant that artists like Dylan, who didn’t need to take flight on the endless promotion carousel, would make an exception for The Johnny Cash Show. Soon enough, it became a right of passage for musicians, and most genuinely enjoyed appearing on the programme – unlike most visits on a classic promo trail.

Dylan took to the stage to perform ‘I Threw It All Away’ and ‘Livin’ the Blues’. Meanwhile, Mitchell delivered a marauding version of her timeless hit, ‘Both Sides, Now’.

Of course, Cash and Dylan shared a friendship that lasted over 40 years until the former died in 2003. “I had a portable record player that I’d take along on the road, and I’d put on The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan backstage, then go out and do my show, then listen again as soon as I came off,” Cash penned in his memoirs.

He continued: “After a while at that, I wrote Bob a letter telling him how much of a fan I was. He wrote back almost immediately, saying he’d been following my music since ‘I Walk the Line,’ and so we began a correspondence.” From that moment on, they shared a special kinship with Dylan, writing after his death: “In plain terms, Johnny was and is the North Star; you could guide your ship by him — the greatest of the greats then and now.”

“Truly he is what the land and country is all about,” continued Dylan, “The heart and soul of it personified and what it means to be here; and he said it all in plain English. I think we can have recollections of him, but we can’t define him any more than we can define a fountain of truth, light and beauty.” 

With that in mind, it was only right that he appeared on the inaugural episode of The Johnny Cash Show, but the only issue is how do you follow up Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell? Cash’s reign as a Saturday night primetime presenter would end up lasting 58 episodes and spawned two seasons, which is a good run for a programme off the beaten track that didn’t just serve the masses up what they wanted.

It’s hard to imagine a show like this ever getting such a prominent slot on a network in 2021. Johnny Cash was a renegade that brought counterculture stars a chance to step out of the shadows into primetime and did it with aplomb.

For now, revisit some classic highlights, below.