Few live performances reach this sort of authenticity in simplicity: a throwback to the Johnny Cash Christmas Special in 1978 with us and Kris Kristofferson.
In the age of network television, variety shows were the bread and butter of entertainment. While it may seem harder to believe for younger generations, one of TV’s most successful variety show hosts through the seventies was the Man in Black himself: Johnny Cash.
Courtesy of ABC, Cash began his variety show stylings in 1969 with The Johnny Cash Show. The series ran from June 7 of that year, through March 31, 1971, and was taped at the historic Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, Tennessee. Honestly, where else would Cash film his own show?
Together with the icon, wife June Carter Cash and members of their talented family would perform on the show regularly. In variety show fashion, Cash would have famous guests on, as well. After 58 episodes, The Johnny Cash Show was cancelled due to the Prime Time Access Rule, when all main networks were required to cut a full 30 minutes from their prime-time nightly schedules. Unfortunately for Cash, ABC’s decision was to cut his original variety show.
The Johnny Cash Christmas Show
In true Cash style, however, he didn’t let this stop him. The legendary musician would return to television variety in 1976, but this time for competitor CBS. The gig? His beloved Johnny Cash Christmas Specials. These four timeless classics ran from 1976 to 1979, and are still regarded as some of the finest from an era when TV Christmas variety specials were a holiday season staple.
Perhaps the most famous (or infamous) bit of variety to come from Cash’s Christmas Specials was Andy Kaufman in character as Latka Gravas from TV’s Taxi – playing Santa Claus… without pants… in 1979. In the years before this, however, a plethora of memorable performances came courtesy of Cash – and we’re here for another all-time best.
The year before Kaufman’s brilliantly bizarre turn as Santa, Johnny Cash moved the production for his Christmas variety show from his music business home of Nashville, Tennessee all the way to Hollywood. That year’s 1978 show, the first to film on the West Coast, kept the feel-good family vibes as its heart but gained access to the biggest names in the business as a result of its new Hollywood home. In fact, Steve Martin himself joined the 1978 Johnny Cash Christmas Special as their comedic centerpoint. But he would be far from the only huge name to come on board.
Kris Kristofferson & Johnny Cash
Another of Hollywood’s finest from the time, and Cash’s future partner in their Highwaymen quartet, was to feature prominently in 1978’s show. Kris Kirstofferson, one of the hottest actors and musicians of the time, already had a long-standing musical history with Cash by the time 1978 came about. In fact, one of Kristofferson’s own songs, “Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down”, had become a hit for Cash himself. Cash had been performing the song so often for the past decade that most thought it was of his own making.
It’s only fitting, then, that Cash and Kristofferson performed the song together for the 1978 Johnny Cash Christmas Special. The song has no holiday significance, but carries a rich emotional core. During the show, as Cash brings out Kristofferson, the legend tells Kris he’d be “honored” if the two could sing it together.
“Up to now that was the proudest moment of my life,” Kristofferson replies in reference to Cash taking on “Sunday Mornin” many years ago. “This might be the proudest now,” he adds of the one and only Johnny Cash telling him he’d be honored to sing with him.
Give the performance a watch below, and it becomes immediately clear why Cash made it as a variety show host alongside his status as a music icon.
“Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down” – Christmas 1978
BONUS: “Christmas Time’s A’Comin”
Another, more timely performance from the two friends would come from the 1978 special, as well. Together with their wives June Carter Cash and Rita Coolidge (who was a fellow superstar at the time), the couples sing “Christmas Time’s A’Comin” with enough joy to make even Johnny Cash himself bounce along.
Live at The Johnny Cash Christmas Show, in 1978.YouTube