Album Review: Johnny Cash – The Johnny Cash Family Christmas

Posted: October 23, 2014 in 1970's, 4/5, Country, Johnny Cash, Uncategorized
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FamilyChristmasEach of Johnny Cash’s four Christmas albums gives a clear evocation of his life at the time.  The Christmas Spirit, released in 1963, was a lonesome affair, so chilly that you can almost feel the wind whipping across the barren fields of Johnny’s Arkansas youth.  By 1972, life had changed dramatically for Cash. He had risen through the dark years of the drug-addled 60s, and emerged clean(er), happily married, the father of a new son, and with a renewed faith in tow.   If ever there was a calm period in Cash’s life, this was it.

As the title implies, The Johnny Cash Family Christmas is all about family and for anyone who’s seen Johnny’s 1969-71 variety show, he regarded his whole travelling entourage as his family.  This album, then, is really like sitting in the middle of the living room with Johnny’s crew trading Christmas songs and stories.  Where the sound of Christmas Spirit was big and echoed, this one is warm and friendly. For once, Cash was at home in his own skin, and he wanted to welcome the world into that life.

Apart from a few classics – Jingle Bells, Silent Night – these songs are mostly originals sung by the respective writers.  Most of the tunes, though are throwaways.  Johnny’s little brother Tommy sings a sweet, but forgettable number about old downhome Christmases in That Christmasy Feeling.  Carl Perkins, recites a spoken narrative about being a father, accompanied by a Larry Butler-led piano rendition of What a Friend We Have in Jesus.  Larry takes a moment in the spotlight with the schmaltzy instrumental My Merry Christmas Song.  If you like “special music” during the offering at your local evangelical church, this one will be for you.  If not, you’ll probably skip this one. Statler Brother Lew Dewitt sings a brief and forgettable ballad too – An Old Fashioned Tree.

Thankfully, there are some highlights too, and more often than not, they’re thanks to Johnny’s wife June.  She and Mother Maybelle Carter give a hilarious introduction to the banjo-led romp Christmas Time’s a Comin’. She and Johnny share a sweet, if somewhat trite, ballad on Christmas With You, that is one of their finer moments on record together. And it was she who penned with Jan Howard the highlight of the album: Christmas as I Knew it.  This one’s a stirring narrative of Johnny’s childhood Christmases and the introduction by his own mother lets you know that when he sings of poverty he knows what he’s talking about.

The rest of the album is pleasant enough. Jingle Bells is lighthearted and fun. Silent Night is touchingly reverent with everyone joining in.  Merry Christmas Mary shows off Cash’s famous baritone. And Cash’s rendition of Statler Brother Harold Reid’s King of Love is a moving ballad that speaks to the heart of Christmas, tying Christmas and Easter together:

 Jesus died the world was dark
Not a sound was there to hark
The breath was gone, He hung His head
But wait, let us rejoice

For He has risen from the dead
He was a child, He was a son
He was a man among men
He was a friend, He was a Saint
He was The King of Love

Too bad the Statlers had to join in on backing vocals – I still can’t stand their over-the-top harmonies!

Perhaps the real treat, though, are the dialogue segments woven between the songs.  Here we get to listen in on Carl telling stories of lighting firecrackers and Harold reminiscing about his drunk uncle. Most importantly, though, are the stories of bassist Marshall Grant and others about the simple Christmases they lived through in the rural South, particularly in the depression.  These tales of another era are true gems. While they sound like they’re relaxing in Johnny’s posh Hendersonville living room, we’re reminded of just how far these men and women had come.

As it turns out, this was really the eye of the storm of Cash’s life.  By the end of the decade, Jan would join the Carter Family band and allegedly have an affair with Johnny. Marshall Grant would be fired after 25 years of service. And, sadly, the drugs would return.  But here we have a moment of peace, listening to Johnny enjoy Christmas with family and friends.  The album’s not perfect, but it evokes a time and place.

For the most part, I find this one hard to listen to shuffled with other Christmas albums, but as a whole, it’s nice to pull out every year or two as a Christmas nugget.

Probably a 3 or 3.5 out of 5, but because I’m all of a sudden in the Christmas spirit, I’ll give it a 4/5.

Other songs from the era:

  • I See Men as Trees Walking (Live) – In 1972 Campus Crusade for Christ, an emerging evangelical organization still active today, organized hosted Explo 72, a week-long conference in Dallas that culminated in an eight-hour concert attracting 100-200,000. Johnny and Kris Kristofferson were on the bill, but so too were Andrae Crouch and Larry Norman. Many today regard this as the beginning of the “Jesus music” movement and ultimately what has become “CCM” – contemporary Christian music. A soundtrack ensued which features a live of version of this tune from Johnny’s yet-to-be-released Jesus project, The Gospel Road.  The sound quality’s not great, but Johnny’s band is cracking, and his performance, including a brief sermon, is heartfelt. Available on the out-of-print LP “Jesus Sound Explosion” and often on YouTube.
  • Live in the Netherlands – Never released, but widely available as a bootleg, is this fine example of Cash’s early 70s live sound. His band and voice were in fine form and the setlists were great integrating oldies (I Walk the Line, Orange Blossom Special) and his newer narrative-oriented gems (Sunday Morning Coming Down, If I Were A Carpenter).

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