We must have been bad. Santa didn’t leave many new country Christmas albums this year. And the paltry batch of releases — five in all — pretty much reflects the current state of country music. When John Berry sings “from now on our troubles will be out of sight” in “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” a song from his new Christmas collection, it sounds a little like wishful thinking.
Among the chestnuts ripe for roasting this year are an album from a 12-year-old kid (Billy Gilman), two pop-leaning sets (Lonestar and SHeDAISY) and mellow, somewhat more traditional outings from a couple of crooners (John Berry and Ricky Van Shelton).
Nowhere in the bunch is there a crusty old elf like Ernest Tubb, growling out “Blue Christmas,” or an unrepentant hillbilly like Buck Owens, giving vent to his disbelief in “Santa Looked a Lot Like Daddy.” Heck, there’s not even an Alan Jackson or a Trisha Yearwood in the bunch. Here’s what Santa brought:
SHeDAISY, Brand New Year (Lyric Street) — To their credit, the sisters Osborn confound Christmas expectations by working well outside the confines of the usual holiday fare. Group songwriter Kristyn shows a dark sense of humor on a couple of originals and in a strange interlude between two songs.
One of the originals, “Tinseltown,” has the ladies’ auxiliary butchering “The Christmas Song,” and a “gin-jolly” Santa manning a charity kettle. “Twist of the Magi,” written by Osborn and Marcus Hummon, and pairing SHeDAISY with Rascal Flatts, is laced with irony. The song’s sweet, hymn-like melody barely hides the rancor between a warring couple: “I sank your bass boat (No! My bass boat, no, no no).” And in a strange, 21-second interlude, “A Really, Really Merry Scary Intro,” a small child receives an unwelcome gift.
Just as they re-worked “Deck the Halls” last year (inspiring this project), Kassidy, Kelsi and Kristyn overhaul every standard included here. “Jingle Bells,” for instance, gets a whole new melody, with a Celtic feel. Producer-guitarist Dann Huff helps the sisters put a rock edge on “Sleigh Ride.” A medley of “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” and “Carol of the Bells” ends with a quasi-rap by dc Talk’s Toby McKeehan.
Even some of SHeDAISY’s covers are a little unorthodox. Best track on the album is the under-recorded “That’s What I Want for Christmas.” There’s also “Christmas Children,” from the film musical Scrooge, and the Sammy Cahn/Jimmy Van Heusen tune “The Secret of Christmas,” from the 1959 Bing Crosby movie, Say One for Me. There’s nothing very country about Brand New Year, but there’s nothing very ordinary about it, either. SHeDAISY gets major points for risk-taking.
Lonestar, This Christmas Time (BNA) — Coincidentally, Lonestar’s Christmas outing, like SHeDAISY’s, is produced by Dann Huff. Just as SHeDAISY gave “Jingle Bells” a Celtic twist, Lonestar adds pipes, sitar-sounding guitar and fiddles to “Little Drummer Boy.” The Lonestar collection mixes standards and semi-standards with two originals — “Reason for the Season,” co-written by vocalist Richie McDonald, and “This Christmas Time,” co-written by keyboardist Dean Sams. The group covers “If Every Day Could Be Christmas,” recorded last year by 98 Degrees. “O Holy Night,” helped along by a steel guitar, and “Winter Wonderland,” swinging with guitar, fiddle and steel, sound as country as anything on the album. “What Child Is This” becomes a ponderous power-ballad. “The Christmas Song,” sung with feeling by McDonald, is the album’s standout.
Billy Gilman, Classic Christmas (Epic) — Twelve-year-old Billy Gilman probably was singing in the school Christmas pageant around this time last year. On “Sleigh Ride,” you have to listen closely to know when he’s singing and when it’s duet partner Charlotte Church. Like listening to Jimmy Scott in the jazz world, hearing Gilman can be a little disconcerting until you accept the fact that he’s a little boy whose voice, though developed in intonation, has yet to change pitch. In a nod to another former child star, Gilman covers “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” released by Brenda Lee in 1958, when she was 14. Keith Whitley’s “There’s a New Kid in Town,” a popular selection for country musicians from George Strait to Trisha Yearwood to Alan Jackson, is one of the standout cuts. The jazzy emphasis track, “Warm and Fuzzy,” is an original by producers Don Cook and David Malloy. When Billy hits the last high note and begins to scat, the experience is a little like biting into a large piece of over-sweet fruitcake.
Ricky Van Shelton, Blue Christmas (Audium) — Remember Ricky Van Shelton? After some significant country success in the late ’80s and early ’90s, he seemed to go away for a while, until this summer, when he released a new album and charted briefly with “The Decision.” Shelton plays it straight on this collection, offering tried and true arrangements of favorites including “Silver Bells,” “Let It Snow,” “O, Come All Ye Faithful” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” In among the standards is a new gem — a swinging, uptempo number titled “Country Christmas,” written by Shelton and Don Schlitz. “Jingle Bell Rock” features fiddle and steel. Anyone fond of the Grit, Va., native’s mellifluous baritone will enjoy this one.
John Berry, My Heart Is Bethlehem (Ark 21) — Unlike his 1995 Christmas release, O Holy Night, which featured only Christmas standards and sacred favorites, this collection includes three originals. The beautiful title track, written by Michael Peterson, is a hymn-like meditation on the religious foundation of Christmas. “Christmas Morning,” co-written by Berry, Adam Daniel and Kim Richey, speaks in the voice of a parent away from home at the special time of year. A powerhouse vocalist, Berry has performed annual Christmas concerts at his church in Athens, Ga., and he has toured regularly during the holiday season, as he is doing again this year. His showpieces on this album include “The Lord’s Prayer” and “The First Noel.” His pop offerings — “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” “Let It Snow,” and “Winter Wonderland,” are less distinctive.
So there you have it. We sound a little Scrooge-like, don’t we, with all our critical humbuggery? It’s worth mentioning that Rhino Records has assembled Billboard Greatest Country Christmas Hits, a 10-track collection that does include Tubb singing “Blue Christmas” and Owens singing “Santa Looked a Lot Like Daddy” (as well as Johnny Cash’s “Little Drummer Boy” and Eddy Arnold’s “Will Santy Come to Shanty Town”).
Among our favorite releases from years past are Kathy Mattea’s Grammy-winning collection, Good News; Alabama’s Christmas (which includes “Tennessee Christmas” and “Christmas in Dixie”); Trisha Yearwood’s The Sweetest Gift; Vince Gill’s Let There Be Peace on Earth (with the heart-wrenching “It Won’t Be the Same This Year”); Alan Jackson’s Honky Tonk Christmas; Martina McBride’s White Christmas; George Strait’s Merry Christmas Strait to You! and Merry Christmas, Wherever You Are; and Garth Brooks’ Beyond the Season.
Faith fans will know that Ms. Hill has a song, “Where Are You Christmas?,” placed prominently in the movie and soundtrack for How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Johnny Staats has two tracks, “Christmas Mandolin” and “What Child Is This,” on the Giant Records anthology, Believe: A Christmas Collection. And the Dixie Chicks and Billy Gilman each appear with Rosie O’Donnell on her charity-aimed anthology, Another Christmas.
So, here’s to you and yours. Have yourselves a merry.