In 1969, there was no bigger star in country music than Johnny Cash, and although he had scored a few pop hits throughout his career, the peak of his pop-chart success came with the No. 2 smash “A Boy Named Sue,” recorded live at San Quentin Prison. That same year, he began the first of two seasons as host of the eclectic ABC music series The Johnny Cash Show, offering viewers a dizzying blend of country, folk, pop, and rock acts.
On the show’s premiere episode, on June 7th, 1969, the Man in Black and his wife of just over a year, June Carter Cash, performed a duet of their hit “It Ain’t Me, Babe,” which was penned by one of his special guests on the episode — Bob Dylan, who had recently released his Nashville Skyline LP. Recorded with some of Music City’s top-flight session musicians of the period, the album featured Dylan’s newly adopted singing style, a light country croon which, naturally, found music critics divided yet didn’t prevent him from scoring his biggest pop hit in three years with “Lay Lady Lay.”
Instead of performing that song on the Cash show, which also featured Joni Mitchell and Cajun fiddler Doug Kershaw, Dylan offered up the low-charting single “I Threw It All Away” and “Livin’ the Blues.” Later, Cash and Dylan, armed with acoustic guitars, sat together in front of a set designed to look like Cash’s living room, where real-life “guitar-pull” sessions would take place from time to time. In spite of its unplugged nature and the overall casual vibe, their performance of “Girl From the North Country” proved unquestionably electric.
“There was a fine friendliness between the two and if you watch closely, you’ll see Dylan slyly driving Cash on the refrain,” Rolling Stone reported from the TV taping. “When the set was over, Cash said, ‘It’s really fine to have a great man like Bob Dylan on the show.’ Then he announced that the first take had been fine and that Dylan enjoyed the audience so much that he wanted to do the numbers again for them with amplification.”
The performance remains one of the many highlights from the series, which, unfortunately only lasted two seasons, thanks to the purge of “rural” programming that ended the network runs of other shows featuring country music, including Hee Haw and The Beverly Hillbillies.
Cash and Joni Mitchell also performed “Girl From the North Country” during the second season of the series. In addition to Dylan, who has recorded it several times, versions of the song have been covered by Rod Stewart, Pete Townshend, Sting, and Rosanne Cash. The tune is also used in a key scene in the 2012 Bradley Cooper-Jennifer Lawrence film, Silver Linings Playbook.