Jerry Lee Lewis
From 1976 to 1979, CBS ran a Johnny Cash Christmas special every year—it must have been a significant Christmas tradition in many homes (alas, not my own). For those who remember Cash as the ultimate rebel par excellence, these specials make for some interesting viewing. During the 1970s Cash experienced a slump in record sales, and during this period he was a familiar face on TV, appearing as a guest star on Columbo and Little House on the Prairie and doing commercials for Amoco.
In these specials, the sentimentality of the occasion can’t be ignored, so Cash gamely refashioned himself as a family-friendly country music TV host. We’re far from the middle-finger Johnny Cash or Folsom Prison Blues; there’s a decent amount of corny levity to be seen here. You might say that this is the closest that Cash came to a figure on Hee Haw (of course, he appeared on Hee Haw as well).
Of course, June Carter Cash is every bit as present as Johnny—the emphasis here is charmingly on family, and many of June and Johnny’s wide-ranging clan of relatives are featured, especially in the 1976 and 1979 specials, which were taped in Tennessee.
If you find yourself inundated with cheesy Christmas songs in every retail establishment you dare to enter, you can surely improve your life by dialing up The Johnny Cash Christmas Special, with its mix of Christmas classics and country-western fare, in their stead.
Taped in Nashville, the special that kicked it off is the most homespun of the bunch. The entire second half of the show is framed as an expansive musical visit around the Cash family hearth. Earlier, Johnny and June join Tony Orlando for “Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree,” and (back at the hearth) Barbara Mandrell, several years before she and her sisters got a show of their own on NBC, engages in some ass-kicking steel guitar wizardry before singing “A Beautiful Morning with You.” Billy Graham ends with a downbeat sermon.
The 1977 edition may be the strongest from a musical perspective, or maybe it’s just my own bias in favor of rock over country. There’s scarcely any humor sketches, which would predominate in the next two years, and the core of the show is dedicated to three of rock and roll’s most venerable heroes, all associated with Sun Studios, just as Cash himself was. In rapid succession we get Carl Perkins singing “Blue Suede Shoes,” Roy Orbison singing “Pretty Woman,” and Jerry Lee Lewis singing “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” before Lewis essays a reverent rendition of “White Christmas.” Then the three of them and Cash come together to sing “This Train Is Bound For Glory” in a tribute to Elvis, who had died just a few months earlier. Also, Johnny spends a good chunk of the show wearing Army fatigues (!).
The 1978 Johnny Cash Christmas Special, like the 1977 edition, was taped in Los Angeles, and it shows a little. The guests include Kris Kristofferson, Rita Coolidge, and Steve Martin, who as a budding superstar is given a fair amount of time for his hijinks. The high point is probably Cash and Kristofferson singing the latter’s “Sunday Morning Coming Down” together.
It’s not news that DM is very Andy Kaufman-friendly, so it was something of a shock to hit play on the 1979 special and see none other than Kaufman himself in the opening bit. For this version of the special, Cash returned to Nashville, and the presence of an appreciative Opryland audience is a blessing. Kaufman scarcely strays from his Latka character, except when he does a completely straight version of Elvis Presley’s “That’s When Your Heartaches Begin.” It’s well known that Elvis loved Andy’s impersonation; here’s a fine chance to see it.