The idea of Johnny Cash in a Santa Claus outfit could scare the mistletoe right off the walls. Do they even make black Santa Claus outfits?
The Johnny Cash Christmas Special
1978 - 1979
1978-2 out of 5 stars / 1979-3 out of 5 stars
Reviewed for Coffeerooms by Mike Jefferson
The answer, as you'll discover in Cash's 1979 Christmas special, is sort of - Johnny sports his usual black undertaker's outfit, only this time it's decorated with cheerful holly patterns. And the normally stern man in black is as jolly as St. Nick himself.
Shout Factory has released Cash's 1978 and 1979 hour-long country time Christmas specials on DVD just in time for the holiday season. Sit back, take a swig of eggnog from the old jug, skip the skits and enjoy a cornball Christmas.
1978 - Country Christmas in Hollywood
The 1978 Christmas show filmed at "Television City" studios in Hollywood and features Cash, songwriter/actor Kris Kristofferson, his then wife, Rita Coolidge, and neophyte comic Steve Martin, whose forced skits will leave you muttering "Bah, humbug!" Of course June Carter Cash and the members of the Cash family are on board to give the show a down home for the holidays feeling.
Johnny starts the show out in a less than festive manner (he is the man in black after all), with "Christmas Can't Be Far Away," which has a dour arrangement wrapped up in sappy sentiment: "A neighbor tipped his hat to me this morning, the landlord smiled and said good day. And I want you to know a stranger said hello - Christmas can't be far away."
Cash falters badly at other times when it comes to recognizing the holiday season. "Fourth Man" is biblical psychobabble about "Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego." I'll tip my elf hat to Cash for somehow fitting those names into a song and even being able to pronounce them without sounding as if he's speaking in tongues, but lines like "They wouldn't bow, they wouldn't bend, they wouldn't burn," turn "Fourth Man" into a musical plague. "The Greatest Cowboy Of Them All" must've also been written when Cash was suffering from a lyrical lapse: "...Hats off to the man who rode the donkey, he's the greatest cowboy of them all...The road he rides is narrow, but it's straighter than an arrow, he rides point for us all." You're shuckin' me, right, John?"
John and June do a lovey dovey "You're A Part Of Me." Johnny sings with enough conviction for the two of them, which is good, because June's voice trills like a country Glinda the Good Witch and is all over the map. June was the type of singer who did a much better job with a beat behind her rather than a ballad, as evidenced by her much improved belting in "Christmas Time's A-Comin'." She and Johnny are loose, feeling the Christmas cheer. Too bad they're coupled with Rita Coolidge and Kris Kristofferson, who look as frightened as Donner and Blitzen wandering into a hunter's cross hairs.
Coolidge veers away from the show's country theme with "Love Me," the type of adult contemporary puffery that put her on the charts. It's smooth and sultry, like Dusty Springfield's version of "I Can't Make It Alone," with Rita sounding like a hearty Anne Murray (think Man Murray...More about the real Anne later). Rita cruises until she reaches for the high notes, then her voice pops like Jimmy crack corn. But as a relentless Coolidge critic, I can honestly say this one'll make you believe she's got a modicum of talent after all.
On the other hand, her husband, Kris Kristofferson, should be glad he hung up his guitar and became an actor (and a good one at that). Kristofferson sings like a bullfrog being smashed under the wheels of a lopsided pick up. He grunts, groans, shakes and shimmies, but can't stay on key. No wonder his appearances are duets. He makes Cash sound like Pavarotti when he can't negotiate his own song, "Sunday Morning Coming Down." It's more like Christmas Kris is falling down whenever he opens his Christmas pie hole. Rita Coolidge gives him one of those "I can't believe what I'm hearing" looks as Kris struggles through his part of "Please Don't Tell Me How The Story Ends." And I don't think that guitar he's using as a security blanket is plugged in either. I'll tell you how the story ends, Kris. They turned up Rita's mike and turned yours way down, so the story ends badly for you.
Steve Martin is on board to supposedly supply the comedy and he's absolutely horrific - now we know why they tore down The Grand Opry. Even Minnie Pearl would throw her used chapeau at this guy. Martin was obviously still working at his craft at this early stage of his career, because he's about as funny as Martin Van Buren - and we all know what a crack up the eighth President was. The closet Martin gets to raising a chuckle is when he makes an appearance as "Jean-Pierre Louey," a singer who's supposed to France's Johnny Cash. Using the "wild and crazy guy" accent he popularized on "Saturday Night Live," he sets the audience up for a puny punchline, laying an egg the size of a two-story manger. Well, excuuuuuse me, Steve.
The show ends in cuddly fashion, with Johnny singing "Silent Night" alongside his daughters, including future stars in their own right Carlene (already a heartbreaker) and Rosanne.
1979 - Holiday Greetings From Nashville
The 1979 show (shot in the more appropriate setting of the capital of country music), is a vast improvement, even if Andy Kaufman is a bigger failure at producing laughs than Steve Martin. Cash does an excellent reading of "Ghost Riders In The Sky" as his opener. It's a slower version, with French horns and a clavinet leading the charge, allowing Cash to bellow like a haunted hoodoo.
Cash talks about his inspiration for "Five Feet High And Rising" and shows clips of his father and younger brother, Roy, visiting the family's house in Dyess, Arkansas that was nearly washed away by a flood in 1937. The interviews, including comments from the simple folk who lived through the ordeal, strengthen the slight biographical tale.
Cash recites "The Ballad Of The Harp Weaver," which is not the story of Harpo Marx meeting Dennis Weaver - and as bizarre as that sounds, that summit would be ten times as entertaining as this Tobacco Road tear jerker. It's about a mother and son who are so poor they have to break up the furniture to heat their hovel. The son can't go to school because his clothes are tattered rags. So while he's sleeping on Christmas Eve, his mother plays her most prized possession, a wooden harp, and spins him pants, shirts, socks (and probably BVDs) made out of gold. It has one of those sad endings that chokes ole Johnny up -- and will leave you checking your gag reflex. This harp is hillbilly hokum - a real turkey for the holidays.
Johnny and June Carter Cash do a bang up job on Tim Hardin's "If I Were A Carpenter," trading smiles, loving glances, and appreciative hugs. After watching and listening to it, you'll never doubt whether true love really exists.
Songwriter Tom T. Hall dispenses his brand of twee country homilies. Like Kris Kristofferson, it's hard to tell which end Hall is singing from, but he seems less nervous than Kristofferson, and knows the limits of his limited range. His medley of self-penned compositions with Cash is a buddy-buddy affair that features two of Hall's signature tunes, "I Love" and "The Year That Clayton Delaney Died."
But it's Anne Murray (!!!) who shines as bright as The Star of Bethlehem. Murray has a deep, luxuriant tone that sets her apart from her wobbly-voiced fellow performers on either DVD. Put her in the same room as her MOR 70s counterparts Karen Carpenter and Helen Reddy, and Anne comes out third, but here her live performances are as polished as her studio recordings. The Canadian chanteuse can sing as easily as you or I breathe, and her spotless rendition of her hit, "You Needed Me," serves notice. But she's also the best at trading lines with Cash (even better than June, who's had a lot more practice), as smiles and swings her way through the happy bop of "That Christmasy Feeling."
Cash and his guests get together with his son's grade school class to sing a quartet of songs at the end of the show. (Hard to believe those apple-cheeked kids are now in their forties.) Tom T. Hall starts the Christmas bulb rolling with a cute "Christmas Is": "Christmas is there in your heart, where it lives, and that's where Christmas is." June Carter Cash shows she's got the holiday spirit by putting some sass into the gospel belter "Back Up And Push," and she gets an assist from flashy fiddler Vassar Clements, who sports a George Jones frozen pompadour and a grim, just released-on-parole-in-time-for the-holidays expression. A very harmonic Anne Murray eases through "Christmas Wishes." The kids look at her with awe and admiration, and why not? Like it or not (and I do), her voice is a marvel of vocal perfection. Cash concludes the show with an earnest "Let There Be Peace On Earth."
If Steve Martin was hogwash in '78, then having Andy Kaufman on board to provide laughs a year later is like opening up your stocking and finding a lump of coal the size of Dyess, Arkansas. A "performance artist" on a country show? Ho, ho, ho? More like no, no, no.
There were only two instances when I found the late "performance artist" funny - one was when he announced he had terminal cancer. I thought he was pulling our legs yet again, but this time the joke was on him. The previous instance was when he played nonsense spouting Latka Gravis, the cabbie mechanic, on the TV series "Taxi." He was funny then because he didn't write his own material.
Okay, I'll admit it -- I absolutely hated Andy Kaufman. When he wasn't boring, he was infuriating. The first time I saw him on "Saturday Night Live" he mouthed the words to the theme for "Mighty Mouse" - the whole frickin' song! Hell, I could've done that. He also created the character of Tony Clifton, an obnoxious lounge singer - and instead of being infuriating or boring, now he was nasty too.
The only character Kaufman ever created that didn't grate or bewilder (well, not much anyway), was "Foreign Man," which morphed into Latka and landed him the job on "Taxi." Luckily, he reprises "Foreign Man" instead of Tony Clifton, although he does step outside of his Latka/Foreign Man persona long enough to imitate Elvis singing "That's When The Heartaches Begin," complete with a sequined white jump suit and fake D.A. Elvis reportedly once said Kaufman did the best imitation of him - then again, The Kang did a lot of drugs and died young.
Kaufman is more of a diseased gnat than a comedian, often interrupting the flow of the show. Anne Murray in particular seems wary of Kaufman, and Cash just shakes his head in disbelief. You will too. The only instance Kaufman comes close to being amusing is in the opening skit when he mistakes the other performers for Cash. When Anne Murray opens her dressing room door, Kaufman takes a long look at her and in his Latka voice squeaks, "What have they done to you, Johnny Cash?"
More Christmas Cash...
Shout Factory has compiled "The Johnny Cash Christmas Specials 1976-1979," a 4-DVD boxed set. (As you may have surmised, the DVDs are also sold separately.) The 1976 special features exceptional picker and "Hee Haw" co-host Roy Clark taking on "The Christmas Song" and "Juke Box Saturday Night." Tony Orlando is also on board still tying to tie that yellow ribbon 'round the old oak tree. Merle Travis (is he a cross between Merle Haggard and Randy Travis?) barrels through "Cannonball Rag." Not to be out-ragged, Barbara Mandrell does "Steel Guitar Rag," and "It's A Beautiful Morning With You." Throw in Johnny's brother, Tommy, who takes a stab at the familiar "That Christmassy Feeling," add June Carter, the Carter Family, and a Stephen Foster medley (Nothing say Christmas like "Campdown Races") and tie it in a bow by having the Reverend Billy Graham descend from his pulpit to recite "The Story Of Christmas," and you've got what sounds like a real barn burner.
The 1977 program brings back the amiable Clark, plus The Statler Brothers, who back up Johnny on "This Ole House" and "Blue Christmas." But get this - the other guest stars are Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Roy Orbison! I'm not a fan of Roy, whose voice shakes like he's got the D.T.s, but he does offer up his biggest hit, "Pretty Woman." "The Killer," Jerry Lee, pounds out "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On," and "White Christmas." Cash stalwart and rockabilly god Carl Perkins rips into "Blue Suede Shoes," and Cash, Lewis, Perkins and Orbison join together to drive home "This Train Is Bound For Glory."
You'll note...Both shows are not encumbered by lame comedians. That alone makes them noteworthy. So if you want to celebrate a happy white Christmas, you might want to check out one of these gifts from the man in black.