The Cowboy in Country Music: Johnny Cash


The Rifleman was four; Maverick was six; Tales of Wells Fargo was seven; Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp was ten; Dick Powell’s Zane Grey Theatre was 13; The Texan was 15; Wanted: Dead or Alive was 16; Cheyenne was 18; and Sugarfoot finished at number 21 in the overall ratings.


In 1959 westerns on the networks in prime time included Colt .45, Maverick, The Lawman, The Rebel, The Alaskans, Riverboat, Cheyenne, The Texan, Tales of Wells Fargo, Sugarfoot/Bronco, Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, The Rifleman, Laramie, Wagon Train, Johnny Ringo, Dick Powell’s Zane Grey Theater, Law of the Plainsman, Bat Masterson, Black Saddle, Rawhide, Hotel de Paree, Wanted: Dead or Alive, Have Gun, Will Travel, Gunsmoke, and Bonanza.

During this 1959–60 TV seasons, in overall TV ratings Gunsmoke and Wagon Train were tied at two; Have Gun, Will Travel was three; Wanted: Dead or Alive was nine; The Rifleman was 13; The Lawman was 15; Cheyenne was 17; Rawhide was 18; Wyatt Earp was 20; and the Zane Grey Theatre was 21.


During the 1960–61 season and the 1961–62 season, western shows took the top three spots in the overall ratings: Gunsmoke, Wagon Train and Have Gun, Will Travel in 1960–61 and Wagon Train, Bonanza and Rawhide in 1962–63. In addition, Rawhide and Bonanza finished in the top twenty in 1960–61 and Rawhide finished in the top twenty in 1961–62.

In the 1962–63 season no western finished in the top three, but Bonanza finished at four, Gunsmoke was 10, Rawhide was 22 and Wagon Train was 25. This is significant because the 1962–63 season marked the end of the heyday for the TV western, although a western (Bonanza) was consistently rated at number one or in the top ten throughout the 1960s.

The period 1955–1963 was the era of the TV western, but the network shows were only part of that. In addition to the network fare, there were syndicated shows such as The Cisco Kid, Annie Oakley, Tales of the Texas Rangers, The Sheriff of Cochise, The Range Rider, Buffalo Bill, Jr., The Adventures of Champion, Pony Express, Union Pacific, Brave Eagle, and numerous others.

But perhaps the key to understanding the influence and success of TV westerns during this time period is to look at the westerns which appeared on Saturday morning TV. This list includes Acrobat Ranch, Adventures of Champion, Adventures of Kit Carson, Rin Tin Tin, Annie Oakley, Broken Arrow, Buffalo Bill Jr., The Cisco Kid, Cowboy Theatre (old western moves), Fury, Gene Autry Show, Howdy Doody, Hopalong Cassidy, Junior Rodeo, Lash of the West, The Lone Ranger, Red Ryder, The Rough Riders, The Roy Rogers Show, Sergeant Preston of the Yukon, Steve Donovan, Western Ranger, Tales of the Texas Rangers, Tim McCoy, Wild Bill Hickok, and Yancy Derringer.


Johnny Cash grew up watching “B” westerns and singing cowboys in Arkansas; one of his heroes was Gene Autry. “Don’t Take Your Guns to Town” tells the story of a young man between grass and hay who strapped on some guns and headed to town; his mother warned him not to take his guns to town but the young man thought he was big enough to handle any situation.

Well, the inevitable happened: he got into an argument with an experienced gunslinger and was shot down. That song was included on an album of folk- oriented songs that included “I Still Miss Someone,” which was originally a poem written by Johnny’s brother, Roy. “Frankie’s Man, Johnny” is a rewrite of the old folk ballad “Frankie and Johnny,” while “Run Softly, Blue River” is a rewrite of the Robert Burns classic, “Flow Gently, Sweet Afton.”

On March 12, 1959, Cash recorded “I Got Stripes,” “You Dreamer You,” “Five Feet High and Rising,” “The Man on the Hill,” “Hank and Joe and Me,” “The Caretaker,” “Old Apache Squaw,” “Don’t Step on Mother’s Roses,” and his own arrangements of “I Want to Go Home,” “The Great Speckled Bird,” and “My Grandfather’s Clock.” This session perhaps sums up Johnny Cash and gives a preview of his entire career. “Five Feet High and Rising” is a story from his childhood based on the Mississippi flood of 1937, which occurred about a month before Cash’s fifth birthday.

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