You can count on two hands (with fingers left over) the number of great artists
that made really great Christmas albums - extended works that reflected the full force
of their genius. Phil Spector is the obvious example; his Christmas
Gift For You is the best album he ever produced. Then, there's instrumental
rockers the Ventures, folk guitarist John
Fahey, country thrush Emmylou Harris,
rock icon Elvis Presley, and a few
others. But, even on their fine Christmas records, these artists softened their
touch demonstrably. Perhaps that's just the nature of the beast - with the season
comes the sentiment.
From an artist's perspective, Christmas
can be intimidating. Great art is often built on dissatisfaction, frustration, violence,
carnal desire, and unchecked emotion. How can artists maintain their existential
howl in the face of the baby Jesus? Or more so, in the face of an unforgiving (and
overwhelmingly Christian) record-buying public? And why would they want to? Who
would dare to record a whole album of impiety?
In the end
there have been hundreds of fantastic, hard-edged rock, soul, and country Christmas singles by artists as illustrious as Chuck Berry, the Kinks, Otis Redding, Run-DMC,
Merle Haggard, and Hank Snow. But, very few Christmas albums have risen to that
Which brings us, finally, to Johnny
Cash. His legend is monstrous - the black-clad rockabilly rebel who popped
speed like candy, fought his daddy in the mud and the blood and the beer, shot
men just to watch them die, and flipped the finger (literally) to the entire Nashville establishment.
But, anyone who's listened to his music in any depth (or read autobiographies
1997) knows that while John R. Cash was a deeply angry, bitterly conflicted,
and inconsolably restless man, he was also a simple country boy longing for respect,
peace, and the comfort of home.
that's the Johnny Cash we hear on his Christmas albums. He made four of them, none
of which hold a candle to classics like "Folsom Prison Blues," "Ring
Of Fire," and "Jackson." His very first holiday effort, however, was a single,
the charmingly minimalist "Little Drummer Boy" (1959), recorded for Columbia
Records shortly after he departed from legendary Memphis label Sun. The record
prominently features Indian tom-tom, presaging Cash's fascination with all things
native American - which ultimately begat his 1964 album, Bitter
Tears. "Little Drummer Boy" actually brushed the charts in 1959 (#63
pop) and again in 1960 (#24 country), and it later showed up on The
Christmas Spirit (1963), Johnny's first full-length holiday LP. In some ways, The
Christmas Spirit is fine - a humble little record imbued with Cash's homespun
populism - and it boasts a high quotient of original material. Two charming recitations set the tone: the nostalgic "Christmas As I Knew It," written by June Carter Cash and Jan Howard, and
Johnny's solemn, self-penned title track.
The originality of The Christmas Spirit is its most striking quality. On the whole, it sounds like nothing else in the history of country Christmas music. But mostly, it's just dull. Cash overcompensates for his infamous image,
squeezing the life out of the music in an effort to set a properly reverential
tone. Christmas kicks the life right out of Cash's usually irrepressible muse,
leaving us with a set of tunes far beneath his usual, firebrand standard.
That makes his next seasonal effort, Christmas
With The Johnny Cash Family (1972), also known as Family
Christmas, better in certain ways. It is looser, lighter, and more convivial -
and palpably familial. It was produced deliberately to sound like a family sing-along and was, quite literally, a family affair. Johnny is joined by his wife June, mother-in-law Maybelle, and brother Tommy, as well as longtime associates Carl Perkins and the Statler Brothers. On that level, it succeeds, conveying a warm, traditional, wholly unpretentious portrait of Christmas with the Cash family. But, while songs
like "Christmas With You" (a duet with June) and "That Christmasy Feeling" (sung with Tommy) are pleasant enough, but any hint
of tension is long gone. That tension - embodied as fear, lust, or despair - powers
Johnny Cash's greatest records, and it is sorely missed.
compared to such lackluster fare, Cash's third holiday album, Classic
Christmas (1980), is awful. The term "classic" is used literally, meaning heavily orchestrated arrangements
awash in choral niceties, unidentifiable as country music. While Christmas Spirit and Family Christmas were low-key records, they retained
a healthy measure of originality and country flavor. In contrast, Classic
Christmas is comprised almost completely of traditional songs like "O Come All Ye Faithful," and it sounds more appropriate for Radio City Music Hall than the Grand Ole Opry. "The Christmas
Guest," originally recorded by Grandpa Jones in 1969, provides the only relief from this stifling program of carols. In the end, Classic
Christmas is regrettable, forgettable, and occasionally ridiculous (cf. "The Little Gray Donkey").
In 1986, Johnny Cash - now roundly out-of-fashion - was booted by Columbia, his
label for nearly 30 years. Eventually, he hooked up with alternative rock producer
Rick Rubin, and in the 1990's they recorded Cash's landmark American
Recordings series of albums that refurbished and transformed his legacy. The
intervening years, however, were bumpy, but they produced yet another Christmas album, Country
Christmas (1991, reissued in a limited
edition in 2006). Featuring June Carter and the Carter Family, Country
Christmas is otherwise unremarkable, recommended only for true devotees of "The
Man In Black."
the same, in fact, can be said for Johnny Cash's entire Christmas catalog. It is more valuable as history - for what it tells us about the man
- than as music to enjoy. Christmas
Spirit and Family
Christmas, at least, bring a measure of Cash's brusque egalitarianism and country
charm to the table. But mainly, these relatively mediocre records speak volumes about Cash's
values (God, family), needs (acceptance, approval), and fears (condemnation, isolation).
In saying these things, Johnny Cash's Christmas records reveal him as one of us
- a legend incarnate - but that doesn't make them fun to listen to.
Sadly, even as historical artifacts, Cash's Columbia Christmas recording have been sorely
abused. Each of them have been reissued on compact disc - some in multiple versions - although shabbily packaged and budget-priced, though Christmas Spirit and Family Christmas have been reissued relatively intact as MP3 downloads. The second and third are also sold in tandem as Ultimate
Christmas Collection (2005) by Madacy Records.
If you love The Man In Black (which I do), but buying cheaply produced reissues of three less-than-great records sounds less-than appealing, there are some good collections on the market. The first was Personal
Christmas Collection (1994), culled from the three Columbia albums, and it
provides some much needed perspective. But, it runs a miniscule 12 tracks - five
of which are drawn from the snoozer Classic
Christmas - and Al Quaglieri's liner notes are wholly unrevealing. The second, Christmas
With Johnny Cash (2003, repackaged 2004),
is little more than an updated version of the same - still just 12 tracks, marginally
improved packaging, and an unreleased
of "Christmas As I Knew It" replacing the 1963 original.
If you can find
it, an inexpensive Sony import called The Christmas
Collection (2003) is an interesting alternative. On the plus side, its 20 tracks include nearly all of
Spirit plus a rarely collected version of "Peace In The Valley" (from Ring of Fire: The Best of Johnny Cash, 1963). On the minus tip, it collects a paltry one track from the quaint Family
Christmas ("That Christmasy Feeling") while weighting itself down with five from the ponderous Classic
A decade later, Sony's Classic Christmas Album (2013) largely rectified the situation. While it stretches only to a middlin' 16 tracks, those tracks were wisely selected. Classic Christmas includes every song I've deemed "essential" (see below), which makes it the best CD on the market. With the demise of recorded media all but certain, it's likely to be the best one ever released. [top of page]