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A Very Country Christmas

Hank Kalet

The intersection of Christmas songs and country singers might at first blush, seem a natural. The genres share a traditional worldview rooted in family and faith and an often tender, nostalgic view of the past.


Christmas with Johnny Cash
US release date: 16 September 2003

Goin� Home for Christmas
US release date: 16 September 2003

Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas
US release date: 9 September 2003

Classic Country Christmas
US release date: 23 September 2003

The intersection of Christmas songs and country singers might at first blush, seem a natural. The genres share a traditional worldview rooted in family and faith and an often tender, nostalgic view of the past. "Chestnuts roasting on an open fire," Randy Travis sings in "The Christmas Song" on the very solid Time-Life collection, Classic Country Christmas. "Jack Frost nipping at your nose / Yuletide carols being sung by a choir / And folks dressed up like Eskimos." It is an idealized version of the season, with the kids waiting up for Santa, hoping to catch a glimpse of his reindeer and a sense that all of us "from one to 92" become kids at heart as Christmas approaches. The holiday, in the language of the Christmas song, is a time for family and friends, for parties and Christmas cards, for reflecting on the past, on home for "dreaming of a white Christmas / Just like the ones I used to know," as Tammy Wynette sings on the Time-Life collection in one of the most sensitive readings of the classic Christmas songs ever recorded.

The Time-Life collection offers a broad overview of the best of country music's contribution to the Christmas canon, with traditional holiday songs, some religious carols and some unusual originals, and is probably the best of the country-flavored Christmas discs under review here. Also included in this review are Suzy Bogguss' understated Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, Johnny Cash's Christmas with Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard's treacly Goin' Home for Christmas, a re-release of a 1982 album.

The Time-Life collection opens strong with Wynette's tender "White Christmas", with her coal-country twang lending an extra layer of yearning to a song made famous by Bing Crosby. Then comes what is, for me, one of the great Christmas songs of all time, Elvis Presley's "Blue Christmas", a song that is all quivering blues and sorrow. The disc features some other gems. Bobby Helms "Jingle Bell Rock" and "Brenda Lee's "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree" are seasonal staples, while a pair of guitar-driven instrumentals �- Vince Gill's "Santa Claus is Coming to Town" and Chet Atkins' "Jingle Bells" -� light up the speakers.

Other highlights are the bluegrass romp "Christmas Time's A-Comin'" by Emmylou Harris (her lilting soprano is fairly drenched in fiddle and banjo, the beat so infectious I feel I should be off square-dancing somewhere), Dwight Yoakam's rockabilly "Here Comes Santa Claus" (all hiccuppy blues) and the humorous "Santa Looked a Lot Like Daddy" by guitar great Buck Owens (a child wonders if mom is getting it on with Santa).

The spiritual aspect of Christmas is represented well on the Time-Life collection, with a sensitive reading of "What Child is This" by the Judds, George Jones' reverent "O Come All Ye Faithful" and Jim Reeves' "Silent Night". The songs are good examples of the other area in which Christmas and country connect. Faith is a standard motif of both genres, Christmas songs for obvious reasons, while country singers have a history of recording gospel songs.

Johnny Cash is the best example I can come up with of a singer who repeatedly turns to his Christian faith as a staple of his music, whether he was singing straight paeans to Christ ("Why Me, Lord") or invoking his presence (as in his version of Kris Kristofferson's "Sunday Morning Coming Down"). So it should come as no surprise that a Johnny Cash Christmas disc would be a spiritual affair. Christmas with Johnny Cash is a collection of the Man in Black's Christmas tunes culled from three previous releases -� The Christmas Spirit, The Johnny Cash Family Christmas and Classic Christmas -� is easily the most religious of the four discs released this year. Cash's voice is particularly suited to the material, its depth and authority undeniable. But the production buries that authority -� for instance, the strings and the choir on "Hark the Herald Angels Sing" may elevate the song, create a grand template on which to praise God, they also overwhelm Cash's vocal, making it seem weak, small. In contrast, Cash's own "The Gifts They Gave" is a lovely hymn, Cash talk-singing over a lightly strummed acoustic guitar, the choir set way back in the mix. Another wonderfully understated song is Cash's "Merry Christmas Mary", a song that reminds believers of Mary's contributions to the Christmas story, and a truly sublime rendition of "Silent Night," Cash singing over guitar and piano, with subdued backup singers making this one of the most evocative versions of the hymn ever recorded. The disc's strongest cut, however, is the lone secular track, a flat-out country version of "Blue Christmas" that, aside from the King's own, is the best rendition of the song I've heard.

As for Suzy Bogguss, her star has been in decline as a hitmaker for a long time, though her talent is indisputable and her new Christmas disc offers as good a snapshot into both her strengths and her weaknesses as any. It is an understated affair, the production kept to a minimum so that it does not interfere with what makes this disc work: Boggus' easy soprano.

The disc opens with a quiet, cozy version of the title track, setting the tone for what is a comfortable set of songs. There are no earthshaking tunes here, nothing that really jumps out and demands a listen, though three songs are worth mentioning. Delbert McClinton joins Bogguss to craft a slightly bluesy version of "Baby, It's Cold Outside", while Bob Angelo's steel guitar and Stuart Duncan's fiddle make Bogguss' own country dance cut, "Two-step 'Round the Christmas Tree", swing. The other notable song is a perky version of Pat Ballard's "Mr. Sandman", here rechristened "Mr. Santa". The disc is a mixed bag, with a fuzzy sentimentality overtaking some of the tunes -� the tepid "Through Your Eyes" and the flat "Sleigh Ride" are the best examples. But that is something that does tend to characterize the songs of the season, and it is something that makes the re-release of Merle Haggard's Goin' Home for Christmas, originally issued in 1982, so difficult to listen to.

Haggard opens the album and the title cut with a mock narration from grandpa, who is getting ready to head home for Christmas. The grandkids know grandpa won't get on a plane, so they talk him into a train trip. It is mawkish and sugary, setting the table for a series of maudlin ditties -� "Grandma's Homemade Christmas Card", "Santa Claus and Popcorn", "Daddy Won't Be Home for Christmas" and "Bobby Wants a Puppy Dog for Chritmas" are so thick with sentiment, so obvious and cliched that they are almost laughable, while "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town" and "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" just fall flat.

Four songs do stand out, however: The Jimmy Webb-sounding "If We Make it Through December", with its shuffling gate and harmonica ringing in the background, a song that balances the optimism of the season against a backdrop of snow, cold and economic dislocation. On "Blue Christmas", Haggard's twangy baritone carries the melancholy of the tune, though the production is too thick, riddled with unnecessary strings and choral backup. "Lonely Night" is a rewrite of "Silent Night", another melancholy song about lost love on Christmas, with the ache breaking in Haggard's voice, underscored by a lilting pedal steel guitar: "I've had 12 long months to remember / I'll have 12 long months to forget / And I've had a few lonely parties / But this is the loneliest yet."

Perhaps the best song is the bonus track, "White Christmas", originally released on Nashville's Greatest Christmas Hits. It is stripped down, just Haggard and an acoustic guitar, with an unexpectedly jazzy arrangement, lacking the mawkishness that plagues much of the disc. It is a remarkable version of the song, maybe the best I've ever heard, and one of the finest country Christmas tunes you'll ever hear.

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