Written Fantasma el Rey
Johnny Cash and his troupe delivered two excellent Christmas specials in 1976 and 1977, during a high point of his career, still very active and touring heavily just a few years after his television show was canceled. Johnny showcased his talent and charisma, smiling and singing with old friends and family bringing into American homes a true spirit of Christmas. And now for the first time in thirty years these holiday gems are available for all to enjoy.
The 1976 special was filmed in Tennessee at Johnny’s home in Bon Aqua and his place in Hendersonville just outside Nashville, giving a country-style “home for the holidays” feel to the show. Johnny opens by singing “Wandering” while he explores some land around his farm after which he cruises over to pick up his guest Tony Orlando and the fun begins. From Johnny, June, and Tony we get to hear Tony’s “Tie A Yellow Ribbon Round The Ole Oak Tree” and are then treated to Johnny on his own, reflecting about “Christmas As I Knew It.” The song tells of his boyhood in Dyess, Arkansas, although the tune was actually written by June and Jan Howard. The tale of youth is a captivating one as always.
To switch it up a bit, Roy Clark joins Johnny and the two country boys sing pop tunes that they heard on the radio while growing up in the south, showing the world that good music is what they loved most no matter what it was labeled. Singing their versions of “Far Away Places,” “Juke Box Saturday Night,” “That Lucky Old Sun,” and that classic “The Christmas Song,” all while Johnny strums a guitar and Roy picks his banjo. To end the first half of the special Tony joins the boys for a tribute to Stephen Foster “a man from the north who wrote such great things about the south.” Foster’s tunes “Camptown Races,” “Old Folks At Home” and Oh! Susanna” are represented well by their wonderful voices.
In the second half of the 1976 special we move to Johnny and June’s large living room for a “guitar pullin’” where everyone gathers around and is given a turn doing what they do best, whether it be singing, playing an instrument, or both. The fine voices of June, Barbara Mandrell, and Johnny’s younger brother Tommy are heard on “Follow Me,” “It’s A Beautiful Morning With You” (Barbara) and “That Christmas Feeling” respectively. Instrumentals are put into the spotlight by Barbara, who treats us to her steel-guitar skills with “Steel Guitar Rag,” and Merle Travis, displaying his guitar mastery on “Cannonball Rag.” The Carter Family, sisters Anita, Helen, and June, along with Jan Howard chime in with their sweet harmonies on “In The Pines.”
To close the first special Johnny brings out Billy Graham who does a recitation of the birth of Jesus but puts a twist to it by using an excerpt from Bret Harte’s The Luck Of Roaring Camp. Well done by Graham who pulls everyone back and speaks of the true meaning and celebration of Christmas being family, friends, and the life of baby Jesus.
A year later, 1977, Johnny and crew were back with different guests and a slightly different special, this time filmed at Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry House. This year Johnny is joined by some friends that had been there at the start of his career, back when they where young men just staring out in the music world: Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, and Jerry Lee Lewis. Also appearing this year would be The Statler Brothers and the return of Roy Clark and The Carter Family.
The set opens with Johnny singing “Christmas Time’s A-Comin’” and moves right on to Johnny and June performing one of my favorites John Sebastian’s “Darlin’ Companion.” From there Johnny tells the story of his lonely holiday in Germany while in the Air Force and how he came to own and learn to play his first guitar. With help from The Statler Brothers, (all of them, including Johnny are dressed in military fatigues) “This Ole House” and “Blue Christmas” are given a fine vocal group treatment.
The first of three tributes that night are sung by Johnny and Roy Clark, paying their respect in song to the Christmas hits of singing cowboy Mr. Gene Autry. People sometimes forget that Autry launched some of the songs we love so much during the holidays, songs that everyone all over the world enjoys. They are “Here Comes Santa Claus,” “Frosty The Snow Man,” and “Rudolph, The Red Nosed Reindeer” on which The Statlers and The Carter Family join in.
Tribute two is in honor of the Sun Records label and the man, Sam Phillips, who gave Johnny and three of his guests their break in music by letting them play and sing what they felt in their hearts to be good music, paving the way for the rise of rock’n’roll and rockabilly. Our host kicks it off with one of his first hits and another of my favorites “Big River.” The king of rockabilly steps up next with his self-penned hit “Blue Suede Shoes,” which leads into the soft voice of Roy Orbison singing his signature tune “Pretty Women.” Although that was recorded for Monument Records, Orbison made his first singles on the Sun label. Last and never least is The Killer himself Jerry Lee Lewis rattling the Opry with “Whole Lot Of Shakin’ Going On” then transitioning smoothly into “White Christmas.”
From there Johnny takes center stage to acknowledge two others on the Sun label who enjoyed success, Charlie Rich and Conway Twitty. Johnny also bows his head to the recently fallen King, Elvis Presley, who had passed away just two short months prior to the filming of the special and setting up the last tribute of the night. In honor of Elvis and his love for gospel music the four Sun gods, three of whom where present at the historic Million Dollar Quartet session, perform “This Train Is Bound For Glory.” Fitting not only for Elvis’ gospel upbringing but also for the fact that one of big E’s early Sun singles was the blues cover “Mystery Train.”
To close the show this year, Johnny brings out all the performers to sing together on “Silent Night,” “O Little Town Of Bethlehem,” “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” and “Children Go Where I Send Thee,” a tune that he had been closing his regular shows with for years. During the singing of “Bethlehem” and “The Herald Angels Sing,” scenes of Johnny, June, and their young son John Carter in the Holy Land are shown. Johnny does some narration here as well and ends the special with goodwill and best wishes to all from the land of Jerusalem.
All in all, the two Johnny Cash Christmas Specials 1976 and 1977 are worth the watch and make good additions to any Cash fan’s collection. As always with Cash you get a feeling that he’s talking straight to you and inviting you into his house to keep warm and celebrate Christmas with his family as if you were a member too. That’s part of what made Johnny Cash the larger than life legend that he is, his heart and willingness to give you the shirt off his back when you needed it. Not to forget his amazing voice and awesome ability to convey a song right to your heart and make you see what he sees and feel as he feels. A talented rebel and county outlaw with a heart and a winning smile. How can you not admire that?