Johnny Cash might’ve been the voice of a hard, dusty, working man’s aesthetic, but he was also no stranger to getting gussied up for a glitzy television special. This 1977 Christmas Special’s chock full of great music, weird moments, and polyester.
Cash kicks things off with a solo and a smart looking tux and is joined by June for a second song. He then undergoes a costume change and pays homage to his early days learning how to play guitar in the Army. He teaches the audience how to play basic chords, casually singing the questionable “Jimmy Crack Corn” because it’s 1977 and I guess that’s what people did.
There’s an overlong sequence in the Army barracks in Germany with the Statler Brothers, and everyone’s dressed in fatigues. The music is great, but three songs in costume in an Army barrack at Christmas is a pretty odd choice. We’re snapped out of that and into a segment featuring Roy Clarke shredding his guitar and joining Johnny for a duet honoring Gene Autry – played beneath an abrupt montage of still photos of Gene Autry. Weird. We then go into a “Here Comes Santa Claus/Frosty The Snowman/Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer” medley that turns into a pretty big number.
Johnny takes center stage with a killer “Big River”, dressed in a deep blue leisure suit and backed by a band wearing the same. Weird wardrobe choice, but “Big River” is the musical highlight of the night for me.
Carl Perkins comes out to do “Blue Suede Shoes”, which hands off to Roy Orbison standing all by himself with a guitar playing “Pretty Woman” and making this awkward pose look effortlessly cool.
Jerry Lee Lewis is up next with a similar setup, all by himself, and pulls it off to less success.
Everyone gets together for a tribute to Elvis, who died earlier that year, singing “This Train Is Bound For Glory”. It’s about as genuine a tribute as it gets.
Then we get a weird pivot where Johnny reads scripture, then the whole cast sings “Silent Night”, then June sings “O Little Town of Bethlehem” over footage of Johnny in the “Holy Land”. The montage continues as the medley morphs into the full cast singing “Hark the Herald Angels Sing”.
We land from this journey into “Go Where I Send Thee”, a barn burning finishing number that finally gets this square crowd onto its feet. And then we’re sent back to the Middle East as the credits play over Johnny playing a concert at the Holy Land Christian Mission. It’s just weird!
There’s a way to see this as everything great about 1970s country music: the glitz, the glamour, and the elevation of a long held tradition. There’s another way to see this as everything great about network television Christmas specials: fresh takes on the standards, heartfelt memories of the past, an evangelical reverence. But, there’s also a way to see this as what it actually is: the residue of a weird over-glamorization of Americana that died with Elvis combined with the final years of a three-channel Prime Time event schedule blended with an almost-forced oversaturation of religious sentiment. It works, but it also kind of doesn’t, and it certainly won’t for much longer.
Too bleak? Happy Holidays!