Those planning to give the gift of music for this holiday season should note the variety of this week’s new country releases. From contemporary bluegrass to traditional Christmas to the country legends — and even a batch of sultry standards sung by two incredible voices — there’s no excuse for an empty stocking this year. CMT favorites Trick Pony and Mark Wills make their returns as well.
With a voice as pristine as new fallen snow, Alison Krauss & Union Station collect a number of audience favorites for Live (Rounder). Listen for “When You Say Nothing at All” and “Baby, Now That I Found You,” as well as “The Lucky One,” “Stay,” “I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow” and “Down to the River to Pray.” A strong mix of ballads and bluegrass throw-downs, the two-CD set was recorded in Louisville, Ky.
Alan Jackson can already claim one holiday album, 1993’s modern masterpiece Honky Tonk Christmas. But at the request of his mother, the Georgia native recorded Let It Be Christmas (Arista Nashville), a warm, orchestrated effort that blends beloved hymns and familiar Christmas carols. In addition to writing the title track, Jackson taped a holiday special that will debut on CMT on Nov. 29.
Jackson has recorded a duet with Jeannie Kendall, of the famed father-daughter duo The Kendalls, for her solo album, due next year. In the meantime, Kendall offers “Smoky Mountain Christmas” on O Christmas Tree: A Bluegrass Collection for the Holidays (Rounder). Rhonda Vincent , Lynn Morris, Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver and the Cox Family also toss their Santa hat in the ring for the seasonal album.
With friends like these, who wouldn’t put out an album of duets? On Stars & Guitars (Lost Highway) Willie Nelson shares the microphone with Vince Gill, Patty Griffin, Emmylou Harris , Ray Price , Lee Ann Womack and a host of rock and pop stars. The cast recorded the album at the Ryman Auditorium on May 27. Of course, “Whiskey River” — with the ever-present Sheryl Crow — opens the 18-song concert. CMT will telecast the special, Willie Nelson & Friends — Stars & Guitars this Friday (Nov. 8) at 8 p.m. ET/PT.
Another country music icon, Johnny Cash , draws on a strange selection of material for The Man Comes Around (American/Lost Highway). The title track, a Cash original, is a sprawling saga with roots in the Bible and his own personal dreams. The Man in Black also covers Nine Inch Nails, Hank Williams , Sting, the Beatles, Depeche Mode, Simon & Garfunkel and the Eagles. Yet, there is no mistaking that voice.
Best known for their hit “Just What I Do,” Trick Pony lassoed Johnny Cash for their debut album, and Willie Nelson appears on their follow-up, On a Mission (Warner Bros.) While that feisty trio tears it up, Mark Wills brings together his Greatest Hits (Mercury), full of sentimental ballads like “Back at One” and “Don’t Laugh at Me.” Wills includes two new songs, “19 Somethin'” and “When You Think of Me.”
In the wake of a successful and well-received tour, Tony Bennett and k.d. lang reunite for What a Wonderful World (Columbia). You’d be more likely to hear these standards in a smoking lounge than a honky-tonk bar, but the two distinctive vocalists blend beautifully. T Bone Burnett, the mastermind behind the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack, produced the lush affair.