As the 1980s got underway, Johnny Cash’s recording career was foundering. Since his 1976 Number One hit “One Piece at a Time,” only his 1979 single “Ghost Riders in the Sky” managed to reach the Top Ten. Celebrating his 25th anniversary as an artist, Cash was still a significant concert draw and made regular appearances on network television, but the specter of prescription drug abuse hung over him and would play a pivotal role in ending his personal and professional relationship with longtime bass player Marshall Grant in March 1980. As that year ended, Cash was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame and recorded “The Baron,” which returned him to the Top Ten, albeit briefly.
The Man in Black, who would lampoon his image in 1984 with the comedic song, “Chicken in Black,” seemed to have retained at least his sense of humor throughout his personal and professional challenges. For his February 1981 appearance on the syndicated Muppet Show, Cash was surrounded by anthropomorphic frogs, bears, pigs and the like, taking about his brand of country music and sprinkling it with dashes of humor and absurdity.
Aired in the U.S. for the first time on Valentine’s Day, 1981, Cash’s Muppet Show appearance included a performance of “Ghost Riders in the Sky,” in which he played and sang as the hook-nosed Great Gonzo and other Muppets rode cows around stage while covered in white sheets — a decidedly odd image 39 years later, given that there’s also a Confederate flag hanging in the background. Later in the episode, Cash performs his 1966 novelty tune “Dirty Old Egg Sucking Dog,” written by Cowboy Jack Clement. In the show’s last big number, Cash sings and plays harmonica on the classic train tune “Orange Blossom Special,” before he’s joined by a partner for one of his best-known duets with wife June Carter Cash. June is replaced here by the show’s resident diva Miss Piggy, sporting a purple cowgirl outfit and hat to match Cash’s neckerchief. While Miss Piggy sings the second verse, Cash hams it up beside her and the medley returns to “Orange Blossom Special.”
In an odd twist of real, wildlife-based drama later that year, Cash was in the exotic animal park he had created near his lakeside home north of Nashville in early September, when he was kicked in the chest by an ostrich named Waldo. In his 1997 autobiography, Cash theorized that the attack happened in part because the ostrich was still missing his mate, who had died the previous winter.
In addition to this appearance, Johnny Cash would join various Muppets during several guest spots on Sesame Street. He was also spoofed on that show in the early Nineties when a singing Muppet named Ronnie Trash sang a song about the environment.