Johnny Cash wanted to make a big impression when his ABC music variety show The Johnny Cash Show debuted on June 6th, 1969. The back-to-back success of his recent live albums At Folsom Prison and At San Quentin re-introduced him to a mainstream audience outside of the country community, and this was a chance to greatly expand on that at a time when everything on network TV attracted millions of viewers.
Four months earlier, Cash spent the day recording with Bob Dylan at Columbia Studio A in Nashville, though only their duet on “Girl From The North Country” made the cut for Dylan’s Nashville Skyline. To repay the favor and promote the LP, Dylan agreed to appear on the first episode of The Johnny Cash Show along with Joni Mitchell and fiddle player Doug Kershaw.
This was one of the first times the public had seen Dylan since his motorcycle accident three years earlier and Rolling Stone sent Patrick Thomas to the Ryman Auditorium to report on the scene. “It goes without saying that Cash fans are as baffled by Dylan’s emergence here as Dylan freaks were startled at the news of this new axis,” he wrote. “But they all lined up outside the Opry: businessmen and their wives, country boys, bald heads, acid heads, bee-hive bouffant blondes, drawling teenyboppers and other assorted traveling wonderers…Dylan appeared to a great ovation, tieless, short-haired with his five-day beard, dressed in a stove-pipe suit, looking a little like Charlie Chaplin.”
Backed by guitarists Norman Blake and Charlie Daniels, steel guitar player Peter Drake, pianist Bob Wilson, bassist Charlie McCoy, and drummer Kenneth Buttrey, Dylan performed “I Threw It All Away” and “Living the Blues” before Cash came out to join him on two versions of “Girl From the North Country” because the first one somehow wasn’t amplified. Check out video of the performance right here.
“Dylan was incredibly reserved,” wrote Thomas. “He only flashed an occasional smile during the entire performance. But it was a strange audience, though not at all unenthusiastic. As a matter of fact, it was outrightly reverent. Not one word was heard from the crowd despite the fact there was no explanation about the lack of amplification on the first run through. Everybody just leaned forward. Those who knew were glad to have him back.”
Amazingly, despite their long friendship and mutual admiration for each other, this was the first and last time that Dylan and Cash played together in public discounting the “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” jam at Dylan’s 30th anniversary concert in 1992 where they were two of about 30 people onstage. Selections from their 1969 studio session have circulated among fans for decades, but a source close to the Dylan camp recently told Rolling Stone that’s these recordings are likely to be part of the next Bootleg Series along with unheard takes from John Wesley Harding and the rest of Nashville Skyline. That will include a Dylan/Cash duet on “Wanted Man” that has never been heard anywhere.