Johnny Cash, outlaw country singer and defiant man in black, comes carefully packaged for many people through the merchandising of his life and image. From t‑shirts to posters, documentaries to award-winning biopics, we know about his ornery prison concerts, drug use and arrests, noble championing of the disenfranchised, and dramatic story of pain and redemption. We marveled at the mystique around the aged Cash in his late-life revival. But many of us know little about another side of the man—Johnny Cash, genial TV personality.
If you happened to have been glued to the tube during the seventies and eighties, however, you would know this Johnny Cash well from his cameo appearances on Columbo and Little House on the Prairie. You’d have seen him shilling for Amoco during the gas crisis of the early 70s—a gig he took on during a serious career slump. You’d have maybe caught his recurring role on Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman, his turn on 1985 mini-series North and South (as John Brown, naturally), as well as a number of film appearances. And that’s not to mention Cash’s own, short-lived variety show, which ran from 1969–71.
If this rather commercial, mainstream Cash seems at odds with the legend, wait till you see The Johnny Cash & Family Christmas Show, which ran each year from 1976–79. Here, writes Dangerous Minds, “Cash gamely refashioned himself as a family-friendly country music TV host” in the vein of Porter Wagoner. It is decidedly “far from the middle-finger Johnny Cash or Folsom Prison Blues”—closer instead to Hee Haw’s Buck Owens and Roy Clark (who appears in the first special at the top). After his marriage to June Carter in 1968, many of his ventures featured the two as a singing duo. Here, they aren’t just man and wife, but “family,” meaning “many of June and Johnny’s wide-ranging clan of relatives are featured.
We’re also treated to appearances from Tony Orlando and Cash’s spiritual mentor Billy Graham (’76), Jerry Lee Lewis (’77), Kris Kristoferson and Steve Martin (’78), and even Andy Kaufman, in character as Taxi’s Latka Gravas (’79). Yes, these may be country corny as all get-out, but they’re also really fun. We get charming, informal goof-offs with June and Johnny, lots of Vegas style comedy bits and lounge routines, and, of course, some stellar musical performances. After his dramatic late-sixties conversion, Cash remained staunchly evangelical to the end of his days. (Hear him read The New Testament here.) But rather than rail at secularists in his Christmas specials, he treats the holiday as a laid-back occasion for food (“snake ‘n’ potatoes”), laughs, friends and family, and all-star sing alongs by the fire. Hop on over to Dangerous Minds to see all four specials.