(1976 & 1977)
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Reviewed by Greg M. Schwartz
he Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville has issued these DVDs as part of its archive series, and Cash fans will find much to enjoy here, although there are major differences in the two releases. The 1976 special has its moments, but suffers from the fact that most of the performances come over a canned orchestra, which lends a cheesy vibe to much of the proceedings. Perhaps Cash received some critiques on this, because the 1977 special was shot with real-time musicians in front of a live audience, a format change which leads to great performances that far surpass the ’76 edition.
Unless you’re a diehard fan, scenes like Cash and Tony Orlando hobnobbing out in the country in the ’76 special will probably play as rather dated, such as when the pair are joined by June Carter Cash for a rendition of “Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Old Oak Tree.” Many will probably find scenes like this to be rather cheesy, although if you’ve seen the Cash biopic “Walk the Line,” the scene in the special with Cash recounting Christmases spent hanging out with his brother Jack (who died as a child in an industrial accident that had a deep impact on Johnny’s life) is rather touching.
Cash and Roy Clark sit around a fire outside in the yard and sing “Far Away Places,” “Juke Box Saturday Night,” “That Lucky Old Sun” and “The Christmas Song” while a canned orchestra plays in the background. The segment has some sentimental holiday value, but it would have been more compelling if they would have performed as a duo with the acoustic guitar and banjo that they’re holding. Clark picks a few notes on his banjo here and there, but the pair don’t play together.
Cash, Clark and Orlando then hang out by Cash’s countryside home in the afternoon for a medley of Stephen Foster songs such as “Camptown Races,” “Beautiful Dreamer” and “Oh! Susanna.” The canned orchestral tracks once again bring down the performances.
The special picks up during the segment shot in the spectacular living room of Cash’s house, where June Carter-Cash sings “Follow Me.” The fact that she’s backed by an acoustic guitar rather than the canned orchestra allows her performance to shine. Merle Travis then plays guitar on the instrumental “Cannonball Rag,’ as viewers are finally treated to some stellar musicianship. Tommy Cash and Johnny then collaborate on “That Christmasy Feeling,” which also benefits from Tommy providing the accompaniment on guitar.
All the ladies in the Carter Family join together to sing “In the Pines,” a showcase for the beautiful four-part harmonies that made the family legends in the music industry. Barbara Mandrell, looking rather ravishing, then sits down at a pedal steel guitar for a smoking “Steel Guitar Rag,” leaving one to wonder where the similar female musical talent is these days. She follows that by singing “It’s a Beautiful Morning with You,” with the canned orchestra unfortunately rearing its head again.
Cash introduces the next segment by saying a show like this wouldn’t be complete if he and June didn’t do a love song together, and she joins him for “Old Time Feeling.” Even the cheesy strings can’t stop the duo from delivering one of the highlight performances of the special, as their voices create one of the richest and most classic harmonies in popular music history.
The special ends with Billy Graham telling “A Story of Christmas.” Viewer taste for this tale from California’s Gold Rush days will probably depend on one’s sentimentality for such Christmas lore, as there’s no music involved.
The 1977 special is a major cut above the ’76 edition. The majority of the show takes place in a theater (the Grand Ole Opry House in Nashville) with a live band/orchestra in the pit, as well as a live audience, all of which makes a major difference in the sonic vibe of the music. Cash opens the show with a solo rendition of “Christmas Time’s a Comin’” that gets things going.
Cash then introduces “the best Christmas present I’ve ever had,” in the form of wife June, who joins him for a little joking before the pair team up on a stellar rendition of “Darlin’ Companion.” It’s only two songs in, and the ’77 special is already light years beyond its predecessor.
Cash is joined by the Statler Brothers, and backed by Cash’s classic band the Tennessee Three, on an army barracks set for ‘This Ole House,” which Cash recounts as a tune he enjoyed in his military days. They follow it with “Blue Christmas,” and the presence of the Tennessee Three once again elevates the performance.
Roy Clark appears for the second straight year and delivers a great guitar solo that is cut all too short. But the holiday vibe is raised higher as Clark and Cash team up on a medley of Gene Autry classics -- “Here Comes Santa Claus,” “Frosty the Snowman” and “Rudolph, the Red Nosed Reindeer.” The pair is joined by the Carter family and Statler Brothers for an all-star team-up on “Rudolph.”
Cash recalls his first visit to Sun Records in Memphis in 1955, his first Christmas as a professional singer, then plays his classic hit “Big River” in honor of the occasion, as it was his top tune at the time. Cash is at his best here, with his full band behind him. The Christmas party really takes off from here, as Carl Perkins fronts the band for his seminal “Blue Suede Shoes.” Cash follows this up by introducing old friend Roy Orbison, who delivers his own classic “Oh, Pretty Woman,” although he strangely performs onstage solo with the band in the pit, rather than with Cash’s band like Perkins did.
Cash then introduces another Sun Records stalwart, Jerry Lee Lewis, who plays a rousing “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” and then follows up the rock classic with a superb rendition of “White Christmas.” Lewis, Cash, Orbison and Perkins then team up for the gospel classic “This Train is Bound for Glory” in tribute to Elvis Presley, who had departed the planet only months before. Hearing these four music legends together provides for a rare and classic moment.
In the last segment, Cash introduces the most important Christmas of his life as 1968, since that was his first being married to June. She and all the other guests then join Cash for a harmonious “Silent Night,” followed by June fronting solo for “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” after which she is joined by the rest of the family and friends as we see footage of Cash visiting Israel’s Holy Land in Galilee.
The whole group then sings a sparkling version of “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing/Children Go Where I Send Thee,” with June Carter Cash, Perkins, Orbison and Lewis all contributing on tandem lead vocals, and the crowd cheering wildly at the end.
The all-star cast that Cash assembled in ‘77 is everything you could hope for in a Johnny Cash Christmas Special, a real crowd-pleaser that any Cash fan should delight in. The ’76 special is not at the same level, and should probably be reserved for diehards only.