Johnny Cash / Gene Autry / Hank Thompson and the Brazos Valley Boys
Country musicians have always liked to sing about God and the old homestead, so it makes sense that they’re regularly drawn to Christmas material. But rather than modern teeth-grating collections such as Kenny Chesney’s All I Want for Christmas Is a Real Good Tan, nobody seems to have done it better than the originals.
Indeed, with the exception of Bing “White Christmas” Crosby, no one did more to ensure a new shipment of Christmas recordings each December than Gene Autry. His 1947 recording of “Here Comes Santa Claus,” along with his original version of “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” two years later, proved that holiday tunes could buy a lot of presents for the singers who recorded them. Each of those Autry hits made the country Top 10, each became a major pop hit, and each returned to the charts during subsequent holiday seasons.
Rudolph collects the eighteen Christmas singles Autry released between 1947 and 1956. There are more kidcentric Santa songs here than anything else (including a duet with Rosemary Clooney called “The Night Before Christmas Song”), most of them written by Rudolph composer Johnny Marks. Everything works in a familiar, agreeable, Hollywood-Western blend of swing and polka while Autry smiles his way down Santa Claus Lane with a casual, charming jing-jing-jingle.
Hank Thompson and the Brazos Valley Boys are on the short list of greatest-ever country bands. So it was a good thing when, on 1964’s It’s Christmas Time, they offered up the same blur of honky-tonk and Western swing that supported conventional country hits such as “A Six Pack to Go” and “The Wild Side of Life.” Indeed, the only sonic concession to the season here is the occasional addition of a glockenspiel or backing choir.
The reissued It’s Christmas Time includes a selection of obligatory carols and novelties, but the standouts include “Gonna Wrap My Heart in Ribbons,” “Mr. and Mrs. Snowman” (who stand all day and melt away, but not before making a little snowman of their own), “Little Christmas Angel,” “I’d Like to Have an Elephant for Christmas” (a kid’s wish as sawdust shuffle) and a sweet, whispered take on the title track.
With his love of the sacred and the secular, Johnny Cash would seem to have an even greater affinity for Christmas music than most. But at least in the recording studio, this potential was never fully realized. Christmas With Johnny Cash collects a few tracks each from the Man in Black’s three Christmas albums: 1963’s The Christmas Spirit, 1972’s The Johnny Cash Family Christmas and 1980’s Classic Christmas. This once-every-decade approach offers a revealing cross section of Cash’s career, from the earnest early stardom demonstrated by the title track of his first Christmas effort to his final holiday offerings, which find him trying to stay relevant and radio-friendly.
On “Silent Night,” Cash’s baritone complements the angelic alto of June Carter Cash with a harmony appropriate for a savior born in a barn. Best of all, “Christmas as I Knew It” is a perfect encapsulation of both the Christmas spirit and Cash’s. In a brief recitation, Cash recalls one particularly impoverished December 25 growing up in Arkansas: how he felt lucky to be healthy and to have his mother; how he and a brother took gifts to an even poorer sharecropping clan across the road; how his dad waited upon, and worried over, the coming season in the fields; and how the mere memory of it all makes his heart burn with hurt, gratitude and joy.