Earlier this year, we got
The Best of the Johnny Cash TV Show,
a fantastic two-disc set that gathered highlights of the Man in Black's groundbreaking 1969-71 variety series on ABC. That was when Cash was welcoming an amazing and wide-ranging array of musical giants, ranging from Louis Armstrong and Ray Charles to Bob Dylan and Creedence Clearwater Revival.
The Johnny Cash Christmas Special 1976,
one of two new Cash holiday DVDs, we get . . . Tony Orlando?
Sad to say, yes. But the "Tie a Yellow Ribbon" warbler is not the only problem with this Bicentennial year show. Unlike the Cash series, the whole thing has an ersatz feel to it, from the hokey, scripted repartee between Cash and Orlando and Cash and Roy Clark to the syrupy music that accompanies even outdoor performances.
Even the "guitar pull" segment has a fake feel to it, despite some hot picking by Merle Travis and, yes, Barbara Mandrell, on steel guitar. The whole final segment is given over to a parable by Billy Graham.
Maybe Cash had similar misgivings about the show, because
The Johnny Cash Christmas Special 1977
is vastly different, and vastly superior.
For one thing, it was filmed before a live audience at Nashville's Ryman Auditorium, just like the series. For another, the show is smartly framed as a look back at Cash's career. And so, besides including his band, the Tennessee Three (absent in '76), the guest list features Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison and Jerry Lee Lewis, each of whom performs a signature hit. (The Killer follows "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On" with "White Christmas," making for one of the odder segues you're likely to see.)
Seeing Cash, Orbison, Perkins and Lewis onstage together tearing up the gospel standard "This Train Is Bound for Glory" as a tribute to the recently deceased Elvis is alone worth the price of the disc. The four return for more gospel at the end when they join the rest of the cast - June Carter Cash, the Carter Sisters, the Statler Brothers, and Roy Clark - for a rousing take on "Children Go Where I Send Thee."