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Published: 2007/11/18
by Brian Ferdman

The Johnny Cash Christmas Special 1976The Johnny Cash Christmas Special 1977

Shout! Factory 826663-10697

Shout! Factory 826663-10698

Five years after The Johnny Cash Show had left the airwaves, the Man In Black returned to America’s living rooms once again. However, this time he and his family and friends hit the airwaves for The Johnny Cash Christmas Special, a one-hour affair that premiered in 1976 and returned in 1977. Just in time for the holidays, Shout! Factory has released both of these episodes on two different DVDs.

The 1976 special is an audience-free affair. It’s also highly scripted, a bit stiff, and rather tedious. The essential premise is that Tony Orlando is coming to visit Johnny on his farm, which gives way to several corny jokes about city life versus country life. Orlando also proves himself to be a cheeseball extraordinaire, acting like a silly jackass in an otherwise decent medley of Stephen Foster songs. The only saving grace is the surprising revelation that the singers all recorded their vocals live, despite the fact that they were often standing outside in chilly temperatures, accompanied by canned music. Thankfully, the special transitions into a pickin’ party of sorts inside the Cash home. Here is where the real highlights are found, in particular Merle Travis’ frenetic “Cannonball Rag,” the Carter Family’s chilling turn on “In the Pines,” and a young Barbara Mandrell’s rollicking spin on “Steel Guitar Rag.” The special closes with Reverend Billy Graham preaching in a way that is uplifting even for a non-believer. After starting the special with an incredibly fake tone, it’s nice that there’s some true passion brought to the finale.

From the opening three seconds, the 1977 special is an immediate and tremendous upgrade over the 1976 version. Instead of the fake storyline of someone visiting the Cash farm and house, this special takes place upon the famous Grand Ole Opry stage, and the introduction of “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash” is a welcomingly familiar refrain. This is essentially a variety show, and after Johnny’s saucy duet with his wife June Carter on “Darling Companion,” the focus shifts toward costumes and sets, as Cash recalls Christmas memories that are “re-enacted,” such as his Christmas in Germany in the Air Force and his first Christmas at Sun Records. However, this is nothing like the cheesefest of 1976, primarily because of the top-flight roster of guests. Sun Records mates Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, and Jerry Lee Lewis all perform their signature tunes with flair, and the three are joined by Cash for a heartfelt tribute to Elvis Presley, who had died two months prior, in the form of “This Train is Bound For Glory.” The entire special closes with the ensemble joining Johnny and June on a medley of gospel numbers while footage of the Cash trip to Israel is shown. There is an unabashedly religious tone to this finale that could never play in today’s politically correct world, but the passions and convictions of Johnny Cash certainly ring true.

If you can stomach the first half of the 1976 special, the second half has some worthy moments, and the 1977 special is quite good from the get-go. However, it’s a real crime that these two episodes are released on two separate DVDs, when each is no more than 45 minutes in length with no extras or bonus features in sight. There’s the Christmas spirit of giving, and there’s also the Christmas spirit of profiteering. I’ll let you guess which spirit reigns supreme here.

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