[2 December 2007]
These Johnny Cash Christmas Specials offer a country music time capsule from the 1970s. Belting out songs of the season with his usual suspects, Carl Perkins, the Carter Family, and the Statler Brothers, Cash the genial host is in fine voice. The specials include popular singers from the time (Tony Orlando, Barbara Mandrell) but also lively folk traditions and country chestnuts (Stephen Foster songs, Gene Autry’s Christmas hits like “Frosty the Snow Man”).
On the first special, Cash gives a tour of his Tennessee farm, then later welcomes viewers into his main home for a “guitar pullin’” with his family and friends, replete with an inspirational story from Billy Graham. That format allows the musicians to stretch their legs. Guitar legend Merle Travis shares some fast, old-time music licks on “Cannonball Rag”, while pop star Mandrell returns to her roots and demonstrates why she first became famous as a child prodigy multi-instrumentalist, on “Steel Guitar Rag”.
Cash’s famous house, built in 1967 on Old Hickory Lake outside Nashville, is showcased here for its loosely Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired architecture (this is the same home that was featured in Cash’s “Hurt” video  and that burned down in a disco inferno when new owner Barry Gibb was having it remodeled this year). It is a convivial setting for this enactment of a long-running country music tradition. As the folksy master of ceremonies, Cash defines a “guitar pullin’” as an evening in which “everybody kinda sits around and chips in with whatever they do best, you know, whether its playin’ music or singin’ a song or tellin’ a story.”
The specials highlight Cash’s investment in such musical traditions as well as his favorite imagery and themes. For example, both speak to how Cash’s use of Western and cowboy imagery consistently form part of his thematics. In the 1976 special, his first, Cash offers some down-home humor when he sits around a campfire in cowboy hats with Roy Clark and Orlando, although the cowoboy motiff is not too obtrusive (though Tony Orlando in a cowboy hat is played for a bit of humor).
The Western theme continues when Graham speaks. Making an analogy between the baby Jesus story and Western literature, Graham uses a gloss of Bret Harte’s famous Western story “The Luck of Roaring Camp” (1868) to argue that the birth of a baby into even the most desolate of communities (like a 19th century Western mining camp) can transform the people into a moral community. In the later disc, Cash expresses a Western loyalty when he discusses Autry as the most important “singing cowboy”.
These specials continue the format from Cash’s earlier network TV show (1969-71), mixing Cash performances with those of guest stars, as well as some footage of Cash touring around to show viewers his home, his friends and family, or to reenact scenes from his life or from country music history. In the 1977 edition, for example, Cash joins with his band, the Tennessee Three, and the Statler Brothers to reenact a 1951 Christmas spent singing with his buddies in Germany during his time in the Air Force (1950-54), helped by a barracks set and Air Force uniforms.
Cash tells a story of being lonely far from home and turning to music for succor: “I was lonesome, homesick and had no idea what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. But one day I walked four miles through the snow to a little pawn shop where there was a guitar in the window with a five-dollar price tag.” He had been singing for years and had played some guitar, but in Germany, he turned to it in earnest. He reminisces here about how, after buying the guitar for five dollars at the pawn shop, he learned three chords (C, G7, and F) from a buddy, and began playing old traditional songs. He explains that after he began to be comforted by playing music, his “life started to change”.
The 1976 special conveys the singer’s investment in old traditional songs, especially when he, Clark, and Orlando sing a medley of Stephen Foster songs (whom Cash describes as “a man from the North who wrote such great things about the South”). The special also hones in on country versus city humor. Cash the country trickster jokes around with city folks, as when Orlando tours Cash’s farm in Bon Aqua, Tennessee, and Cash teases him that “June makes the best snake and potatoes around.”
The stand out in the 1977 special from the Grand Ole Opry House, in addition to his fiery duets with June Carter Cash, is a truly historic tribute to Elvis, who had recently passed away. Cash’s fellow Sun Records stars Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Roy Orbison join him to honor their label mate, appropriately, with a gospel number, “This Train is Bound for Glory”.
The performance is sharp and compelling, and it allows an interesting comparison of these singers who all got their start in Sam Phillips’s cauldron of country mixed with rhythm and blues. Cash’s songs elsewhere on the special highlight his signature sound—his distinctive deep bass baritone voice the focal point, staying in a limited range with straightforward singing and little vibrato or other adornment, backed by the boom-chicka-boom of the simple guitar and rhythm section mimicking a train.
Cash’s attitude is often playful, especially on the Carter Cash duets. In comparison to his peers, Cash was never the balladeer that Elvis could be or that Roy Orbison epitomized, and he was never a singer who equally featured his instrumental talents, as Lewis did with the piano or Perkins did with the electric guitar. His instrumentation was much simpler (classically at Sun in the 1950s just the lead guitar, Cash on rhythm, his bass player and eventually a drummer, and on later albums Cash sometimes added a piano). His sound was much more stripped bare, and the focus was always on his power as an empathetic storyteller. His signature songs also fit much more firmly in a country genre, while Orbison gravitated to pop music ballads and Lewis and Perkins had more driving rockabilly beats than Cash did.
Reflecting these dynamics, in an earlier number on the 1977 special, Lewis, “the Killer”, is every bit as volcanic as he ever was on a virtuoso rendition of his solo hit, “Whole Lot of Shakin’ Going On”, his pounding piano solos anchoring the song he once described as “obscene”. But when Lewis joins with the quartet of stars, he is subdued, his voice plaintive and pious as he throws in the occasional gospel shout.
Also earlier in that show, Perkins had delivered a rousing version of his hit “Blue Suede Shoes” (whose title came from Cash), in which he yelped while driving the song along with his up tempo guitar solos, throwing in a bit of reverb at the end of the song. In the quartet, meanwhile, he retreats to the background, offering solid vocals but no flash. Orbison had earlier underscored his balladeer skills on a performance of “Oh, Pretty Woman”, his high voice unmistakable. When he joins the other boys for the gospel number, his high, delicate voice stands out even more, in sharp contrast to Cash’s much deeper sound.
Available on DVD for the first time since they aired, these two hour-long specials area must-have for Cash loyalists, as well as more casual fans looking for something special with a holiday touch.. While there are no extras, beyond a song selection menu, Shout! Factory did fans a solid when they partnered with the fabulous Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum to make this footage available.