NASHVILLE SKYLINE: A Kris Kristofferson Song Evokes True Christmas Spirit

Songs of the Season Offer Joy, Prison, Drink and Peace on Earth

(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/ Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)

Musical choices at Christmas have never been greater. For country fans, there’s an ample offering of packages this year such as Faith Hill’s Joy to the World and Elvis Presley’s Christmas Duets with Martina McBride, Carrie Underwood, LeAnn Rimes, Sara Evans and others.

Rock fans have their perennial favorites such as the memorable album A Christmas Gift for You From Phil Spector with the Ronettes, the Crystals, Darlene Love and Bob B. Soxx & the Blue Jeans. Or Bruce Springsteen’s “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town.” Or Jimi Hendrix’ instrumental of “Silent Night” or the old David Bowie/Bing Crosby version of “Little Drummer Boy.” This is a genuine duet, performed on Crosby’s 1977 Christmas TV special.

Devotees of traditional Christmas music love Emmylou HarrisLight of the Stable with such guests as Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt, Rodney Crowell, Ricky Skaggs and Neil Young. Patty LovelessBluegrass & White Snow: A Mountain Christmas has a similar devoted following.

Fans of the offbeat have such offerings as the Christmas plea, “Please Daddy, Don’t Get Drunk” by Kelly Willis and Bruce Robison, John Prine’s “Christmas in Prison,” Robert Earl Keen’s “Merry Christmas From the Family” (the song, video and book, no less), Ray Stevens’ “Redneck Christmas,” Cowboy Copas’ “I’m Tired of Playing Santa Claus to You” or Spike Milligan’s “I’m Walking Backwards for Christmas.”

There’s no shortage of Christmas songs and narration that are not often heard much anymore, some with good reason and some not. Johnny Cash, of course, recorded several good ones, two of which especially linger in my consciousness. “The Gifts They Gave” (notably recorded by Harry Belafonte) tells the story of the animals’ gifts to the Christ Child. And “The Ballad of the Harp Weaver” is a strange, engrossing, Christmas Eve tale, from Edna St. Vincent Millay’s poem, which you won’t soon forget.

Christmas songs that endure do so because they are very, very good. Good songwriting always tells. Songs such as “What Child Is This” or “O Come All Ye Faithful” or “Away in a Manger” or “The First Noel” or “Silent Night” or “White Christmas” will never be forgotten. For that matter, neither will “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”

One characteristic that all good songs share is that they, with some few exceptions, tell remarkably simple and direct stories. And the best writers often weave a hypnotic story out of the seemingly simplest of inspirations.

Dolly Parton took the subject of cheap, hard candy and crafted from that her “Hard Candy Christmas.” Just the title of this song tells you its message: There’ll be no rich chocolates for these kids, just cheap, hard candy — if they’re lucky, that is. I still remember packing little Christmas bags in my father’s church as a child to hand out to less fortunate children. The grownups always made sure there was candy in each bag, along with the orange and apple and nuts and whatever else we could get. And it was almost always cheap, hard candy. To this day, I can’t stand the sight or thought of that wretched, cheap, hard ribbon candy.

Christmas wrapping paper is another seemingly mundane subject, but Willie Nelson took the notion of wrapping paper and wrote “Pretty Paper,” which Roy Orbison’s inspired delivery took to the aural stratosphere.

There’s one song in particular I especially love hearing at Christmas. It too was written with cheap candy as an inspiration. The song, as far as I know, has never been regarded as being especially Christmas-y, but it is to me. Kris Kristofferson used the notion of cheap candy in his evocative song “Here Comes That Rainbow Again.” Listen to it sometime.

The scene was a small roadside cafe,
The waitress was sweeping the floor.
Two truck drivers drinking their coffee.
And two Okie kids by the door.
“How much are them candies?” they asked her.
“How much have you got?” she replied.
“We’ve only a penny between us.”
“Them’s two for a penny,” she lied.

And the daylight grew heavy with thunder,
With the smell of the rain on the wind.
Ain’t it just like a human.
Here comes that rainbow again.

One truck driver called to the waitress,
After the kids went outside.
“Them candies ain’t two for a penny.”
“So what’s it to you?” she replied.
In silence they finished their coffee,
And got up and nodded goodbye.
She called: “Hey, you left too much money!”
“So what’s it to you?” they replied.

And the daylight was heavy with thunder,
With the smell of the rain on the wind.
Ain’t it just like a human.
Here comes that rainbow again.

Christmas and the Christmas spirit don’t exist only in churches or cathedrals or concert halls. Christmas belongs to everyone, and the true Christmas spirit lives in the heart.

Merry Christmas.