The Johnny Cash Christmas Specials were the third and fourth installments of his annual tradition. They offer a glimpse into the 1970s country music world as they include performances by June Carter Cash, Kris Kristofferson, Rita Coolidge, Tom T. Hall, and Anne Murray.
Comedy relief comes in the form of appearances by Steve Martin and Andy Kauffman, appealing to a country audience by keeping much of their material related to Cash. Surprisingly, Martin does not choose to show off his famous banjo-playing skills, but he does perform as a French Johnny Cash-like figure. Kauffman is in character as Latka from Taxi for the most part, until he switches into his uncannily good Elvis Presley impression.
The 1978 special was filmed in Los Angeles, because as Cash explained, three of his daughters and many of the family’s friends live in the area so they decided to spend the holidays in California. Moving the show to LA marked a shift to a more Hollywood-style production, as opposed to the more laid back, homey feeling of the1979 special back in Nashville.
Each of the specials begins with a short introductory comedy sketch and then with a short “My name is Johnny Cash”, Cash immediately launches into a song. As each of the specials runs just under one hour, Cash and his guests make great use of their time singing solos, duets, and group numbers, alongside Cash’s stories of family Christmases and even a recitation of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “The Ballad of the Harp Weaver”, along with the comic portions, these specials offer a wonderful variety of material that seems almost unimaginable today.
Both of these specials include performances of non-Christmas related songs and comedy material. In fact, as far as the comedic parts go, there is really only one gag that is holiday themed and it features Andy Kauffman in a Santa Claus suit without pants. Not exactly traditional Christmas fare.
While there are Christmas songs interspersed throughout the specials, the majority of the music consists of standard country tunes. Highlights include Cash’s “Ballad of a Teenage Queen”, his two duets with June Carter Cash (“You’re a Part of Me” and “If I Were a Carpenter”), Cash and Kristofferson’s duet on “Sunday Morning Coming Down” and Hall’s “That’s Why You Have to Be You”.
Both Rita Coolidge and Anne Murray also sing solos, “Love Me Again” and “You Needed Me”, respectively, yet they stand out as something closer to pop ballads than the rest of the more traditional country songs. However, both of their duets and group sing-alongs stick closer to this, particularly Murray’s song with Cash, “That Christmasy Feeling”.
Part of what makes these specials as engaging as they are is Cash himself, particularly his easygoing rapport with guests and the obvious love he has for his family. The moments with June are especially charming – their duet on the aforementioned “If I Were a Carpenter” exudes such warmth and affection that many may be surprised to see him so relaxed. The 1978 special includes Cash singing “Silent Night” surrounded by daughters Carlene, Tara, Rosanne, Cindy, Kathy, and Rosie and while a few of them seem less than enthused to be singing along, Cash is all smiles as the proud father.
There’s also a portion of the 1979 special devoted to family recollections with his father, Ray, and older brother, Roy, visiting their small, childhood home in Dyess, Arkansas. They reminisce about a bad flood that sent their farm animals to seek shelter in the home. The obvious hardship of Cash’s early life is clear, but the simplicity and humor used in retelling their story is a welcome antidote to the increasingly cheap tactics used to illicit an emotional response in much of reality television today.
Having cleaned up his act from his many addictions and rediscovered his Christian faith ten years earlier, there is a matter-of-factness to the way Cash speaks of God and religion in the specials. There is no proselytizing or any overtly religion scenes, but it is clearly and unapologetically a part of the programs. The 1979 special has Cash telling of a recent family trip to “the Holy Land”, Jerusalem, and the feeling of “coming home” he felt during their visit.
Unfortunately, there are no bonus features to speak of, but these specials made available through a partnership with the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, offer enough to entice both Johnny Cash and country music fans to this collection.
The Johnny Cash Christmas Special 1978
The Johnny Cash Christmas Special 1979