Wynonna Looks Backward for a Classic Christmas

Reunites With Studio Mentors Brent Maher and Don Potter

“I looked back over my life, and I picked the things that meant the most to me,” Wynonna says in explaining her song choices for A Classic Christmas, her first holiday collection since Christmas Time With the Judds came out in 1987.

Produced by the singer’s old friends and studio buddies, Brent Maher and Don Potter, and arranged and conducted by Bergen White, the album captures all the joy and majesty of the season the title promises.

The one song Wynonna did not choose was “Ave Maria,” which she sings in Latin. A pop music promoter at her label, Curb Records, recommended it.

“I listened to it, and I thought, ’I have no idea how I would even begin to do this song,'” she says. “But my mom happens to know somebody who knows a vocal coach. I called this person, and I said, ’I think I’m going to try this song. Will you help me?’ And he said, ’Sure.’ So I went over to his house, and we learned it phonetically.”

Except for Potter’s composition, “It’s the Messiah,” the songs on the album are warmly familiar. On three of them — “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” — Wynonna sings the seldom-heard introductory verses.

“I just really resonate to the old-fashioned,” she says. “There’s a part of me that longs for a time — a very romantic time — in music when Dean Martin and Ol’ Blue Eyes [Frank Sinatra] made records the right way. There’s a part of me that longs for that style of making records.

“I remember going in and hearing that very beginning of ’Santa Claus,’ and I asked literally everyone in the studio, ’Have you heard this introduction?’ And nobody, with the exception of Brent and Don and Bergen, had heard it. I was stunned. And I thought, ’There you go. Our next generation does not know this music.’ I really love telling Grace and Elijah [her children], ’This is the version that your great-grandmother listened to.'”

The other selections are “The Christmas Song,” “Winter Wonderland,” “White Christmas,” “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” “O Holy Night” and “Silent Night.”

Maher and Potter were with the Judds from the beginning of their career, and Wynonna says it was liberating to work with them again. She is also loud in her praise of White, whom she met through her work with the Nashville Symphony.

“He’s such a stylist and such a force in the industry,” she marvels. “But there’s also something about Bergen that is so sentimental and tenderhearted. I just really believe you attract who you’re supposed to at the time.”

As Wynonna sees it, it took a convergence of all the right elements to even make her open to doing a Christmas album. “I have always seen Christmas records as a reaction to the mechanical side of Christmas — to pay back the record label or to get a few more dollars in before the end of the year. … The Judds’ 1987 release is the most sacred to me. Therefore, this album had to be the next chapter, and it had to be right and it had to be pure. If you listen to my voice, I kind of went back to the well and tapped into that real sweet tender spot of the way I felt back then, before all the craziness started.”

Elijah and Grace — he’s almost 12, she’s 10 ½ — joined their mother on “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town.” But Wynonna insists it was not a gimmick and that both kids can really sing.

“At first, it was almost like taking them to the dentist,” she recalls. “’Oh, Mother!’ I heard that a lot. Some eyes were rolling at one point, and I just started laughing because I realized I was becoming just like my mother. But after they got started, it was almost like a light bulb went on, and they had the very best time. When they heard it back, it was profound to me. The look on their faces when they heard their little voices coming back through those speakers, I could almost weep about it. I remember that feeling.”

Wynonna says she recorded A Classic Christmas over a period of about two months. “We did it with the orchestra and choir at the same time,” she says. “I did as much live vocalization as I possibly could. That meant creating and capturing the spirit of the record at the same time, which is what I’m all about. … We don’t use ProTools. We do it until we get it right.”

Her hope for the album, she says, was simple. “I wanted my grandmother to listen to it and say, ’Oh, does that take me back!’ If Pavarotti listened to ’Ave Maria,’ I wanted him to say, ’That’s really good’ — instead of, ’She should stick to country.'”

Edward Morris is a veteran of country music journalism. He lives in Nashville, Tennessee, and is a frequent contributor to CMT.com.