PBS' 'Anthology' Ponies Up The Classic Cash

This appeared in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram - August 4, 2001

There's absolutely no way PBS could even begin to size up the life and accomplishments of veteran country singer Johnny Cash, whose career has spanned six decades, in an all too brief 60 minutes.

Thankfully, that's exactly what the network has not done with its special, Johnny Cash Anthology, airing at 9 p.m. Tuesday on Channel 13. (PBS pledge pleas expand the show's air time to 90 minutes.)

Rather, Anthology is just that: a visual version of a greatest-hits compilation. It's an hourlong show that spotlights Cash's best-known material, while at the same time presenting pivotal moments in his career, such as his early concerts at jailhouses, his romance with June Carter and, finally, his comeback in the '90s.

The show starts out where Cash started out: on TV. In the '50s, several appearances on variety shows helped Cash gain a national following. Several of Anthology's best moments come from this footage.

"I Walk the Line," "Big River" and "Cry Cry Cry," all taken from grainy black-and-white TV appearances in which Cash rolls his head around and cocks his guitar like a rifle, capture him at his prime: young, scrappy, unafraid to sing about the common-man plights he was surrounded by.

The show also explores an interesting anecdote about how Cash wound up putting a Mexican horn section - unheard of in country music - on another one of his early hits, "Ring of Fire."

As his popularity surged in the late '50s, Cash made a string of appearances at prisons and jailhouses, represented here by "Orange Blossom Special," which Cash performed - a harmonica in each hand - to a room of rowdy prisoners.

Anthology features clips of his trademark song, "The Man in Black," a gorgeous reading of Kris Kristofferson's "Sunday Morning Comin' Down" and "Jackson," a duet with June Carter that epitomized his then-blossoming relationship with the Carter Family singer.

The show concludes in the '90s, with "Bird on a Wire" and other cuts from Cash's American Recording sessions, the simple, plaintive cover songs that rekindled his career.

Sprinkled throughout the concert footage, video clips and TV appearances are interviews with country-music heavyweights such as Waylon Jennings, Porter Wagoner, George Jones and Merle Haggard, all of whom take turns bowing to Cash and reminiscing.

It's the interviews with Marty Stuart and Rodney Crowell that are the most engaging. Both intelligently talk about the influence Cash's music had on them, and on country music and pop culture in general. Yet it's Haggard who best sums up Johnny Cash: "He never walked any line."

By Malcolm Mayhew

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