Country Variety

Photo of Johnny Cash
This Sunday's All-Star Tribute
to Johnny Cash brings
the music legend back in black.

Remember the scene inCity Slickers in which Phil (Daniel Stern) reminisces with his buddies (Billy Crystal and Bruno Kirby) about his dad? In that scene, he says he and his dad could never talk without butting heads, but once they started talking about baseball, all the tension drifted away. If nothing else, they always had baseball. For my mother and me, it was the TV variety show, and more specifically, The Johnny Cash Show.

Ed Sullivan, Carol Burnett, Red Skelton, and Dean Martin were faithfully watched in our house. I liked the comedy sketches. My mom enjoyed the musical acts and how pretty the women looked in their fancy dresses and upswept hairdos. I was completely mesmerized by the overhead camera shots of the June Taylor Dancers on Ed Sullivan. Lying on the floor in a circle, shoulder to shoulder, they would make kaleidoscopic patterns by moving their hand-held fans, lamé-covered arms, and sequined legs.

My mom was gaga over The Tom Jones Show, although I couldn't figure out what all the excitement was about. There were always women in the audience screaming as Tom sang and gyrated in his tight black pants and toreador jacket, his shirt splayed open. Women reached out to mop the sweat off Tom's glistening face and chest -- okay, I figured it out later, but at the time, I didn't get it.

We both howled at Flip Wilson's Geraldine character in The Flip Wilson Show. At first, my mom expressed a mild disdain at seeing a black man in drag. When I asked what the difference was between Flip Wilson and Milton Berle, she didn't have an answer. In the end, it was Geraldine that often brought her to tears, laughing in that wild chicken-screech of hers that made my brother and me embarrassed and giddy at the same time. My mother is a woman who rarely cuts loose, so seeing her laugh riotously and without restraint is one of the truly fond memories I have of her.

Curiously, the history of the TV variety show is parallel to my relationship with my mother: fun and carefree in the beginning, full of laughs and feel-good moments, and then, things started to change. For me, the early onset of puberty created the distinct fear that I would become like my very uncool mother. For the TV variety show, the difficulty became the increasing struggle to be hip in a form that was essentially vaudevillian.

In June of 1969, Johnny Cash premiered his television variety show. It was the first of its kind to successfully feature country music in a way that appealed to a broad audience. When my mom first said that she wanted to watch Johnny Cash, I jeered. I suspected it to be another in a line of hayseed shows that had already infiltrated the musical variety format -- Hee Haw and The Glen Campbell Good Time Hour being the worst offenders in my pubescent opinion. Actually, "country" themes and characters had a high profile on Sixties and early Seventies television, creating a low-intensity tug of war between the urban and rural, and between a mother and her daughter. My mom wanted to watch Johnny Cash and Hee Haw; I wanted to watch Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In, and Carol Burnett. She wanted to watch Gomer Pyle, Bonanza, and Mayberry R.F.D.; I wanted to watch Family Affair, Julia, and The Mod Squad. Our opposing tastes in TV viewing became symbolic of our mother-daughter rift during my terrible teens.

But wouldn't you know it, when I saw that TNT would be broadcasting an all-star tribute to the Man in Black, I got a little misty. I'm not sure I even remember the highlights of The Johnny Cash Show, but I remember watching it against my will with my mother. It's not like I couldn't go off and read a book, but my rebelliousness demanded that I be there to roll my eyes and guffaw to fully get across my opinion of the show. Fortunately, my mother ignored me and turned up the set. And even more fortunately, I discovered the poetic dignity of Johnny Cash, and in the process, discovered a little bit about my mother.

Cash was born into poverty a few years before my mother, he in Arkansas, she in South Texas. Both worked in cotton farming and this seemed to endear her to him. That, and the fact that his hard life of poverty, drugs, prison, and finally finding God was etched into his face and his music. In spite of myself, I found myself feeling the ache in lyrics like "I bet there's rich folks eatin' in a fancy dinin' car/ They're probably drinkin' coffee and smokin big cigars/ But I know I had it comin', I know I can't be free/ But those people keep on movin' and that's what tortures me." Realizing that these lyrics also hit something deep and lonely in my mother created a quiet détente in our mother-daughter battles when wetuned in each week to see country stars from the Statler Brothers, Roy Acuff, Tammy Wynette, and Carl Perkins, to first-class talent from the musicians of other genres, like Louis Armstrong, Jose Feliciano, Arlo Guthrie, and Linda Ronstadt. The Johnny Cash Show is credited with bringing then little-known performers -- Stevie Wonder, Neil Young, Bob Dylan -- to a mainstream audience.

The TNT all-star tribute features performances by artists who were influenced by Cash, including Sheryl Crow, Lyle Lovett, Bruce Springsteen, U2, Wyclef Jean (of the Fugees), and others. Due to his failing health, it was unclear if Cash himself would be performing at the taping on April 6, but advance press assured that he did. The TNT tribute may be a rare -- but hopefully not the final -- opportunity to see Cash perform before a live audience.

As for my mom, she'll be popping up some popcorn and making up a fresh pitcher of iced tea for watching the show. Me? I'll pop up my own popcorn and concoct something a little bit stronger to drink. Maybe not the coolest way to spend a Sunday evening, but what can I say? I'm my mother's daughter.

An All-Star Tribute to Johnny Cash, part of the TNT Masters Series, airs Sunday (4/18, 7pm, TNT).

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