Say “Bah! Humbug!” to Predictable Holiday Music

An Americana Christmas May Be the Answer

(Straight From Nashville is a weekly column written by managing editor Calvin Gilbert.)

When I made the confession to one of my colleagues at CMT, he grinned and retorted, “You don’t like holiday music? What a surprise!”

Aside from getting the wake-up call that I need to make an effort to show a bit more cheer during the holiday season — if not forever — I realized I do like some holiday music. But as it is with any music, it has to be the right stuff.

For me, New West Records’ recent compilation, An Americana Christmas, fills the bill this year. Aside from introducing me to some things I’d never heard, it also brings back some great music I’d all but forgotten. In a way, reconnecting with certain music is like getting an unexpected call from an old friend you haven’t heard from in years.

I felt that way when I heard the late Rick Danko’s voice on The Band’s “Christmas Must Be Tonight,” a track from their 1977 album, Islands. The truth is, it’s not their finest album, and Robbie Robertson’s holiday song tends to get overlooked.

Hearing Emmylou Harris sing “The First Noel” reminded me how great she sounded on her 1979 holiday collection, Light of the Stable. And how can you not like John Prine’s “Everything Is Cool” from his 1994 Christmas project?

The album I now have to pull out of my disorganized archives at home is Ben Keith’s Seven Gates: A Christmas Album. That’s prompted by the inclusion of Neil Young’s recording of “Les Trois Cloches” on Keith’s 1994 album. Fans of classic country music may recall the song as “The Three Bells,” the Browns’ hit that spent 10 weeks at the top of the country chart in 1959.

Keith, a veteran steel guitarist in Nashville, was a longtime member of Neil Young’s various bands. Seven Gates is a stunning album featuring guest appearances by JJ Cale, Johnny Cash, Cowboy Jack Clement and Nicolette Larson — all now deceased. Keith died in 2010, and Young traveled to Nashville earlier this year to induct his friend into the Musicians Hall of Fame.

It’s easy to get pulled in by nostalgia, though, and An Americana Christmas, provides some new and otherwise undiscovered music that may find its way to your holiday playlist for years to come.

Guitarist Luther Dickinson opens the album with a unique take on “Hark! The Angels Sing.” One of the new recordings, it features him playing slide guitar backed by a horn section. Maybe it’s the Memphis connection they share, but hearing Dickinson’s interpretation makes me want to go back to revisit one of my favorite holiday albums, Booker T & the MGsIn the Christmas Spirit.

Among the other new tracks, Robert Ellis turns in an inspired version of Willie Nelson’s “Pretty Paper,” and Nikki Lane’s “FaLaLaLaLove Ya” is a delight. And I wasn’t at all familiar with the Common Linnets, a band from the Netherlands, until CMT Edge editor Craig Shelburne wrote about their contribution, “At Christmas Time.”

However, the new song that will drop you in your tracks is Corb Lund’s “Just Me and These Ponies (For Christmas This Year).” If you have about four minutes to spare, check this out. It may just change your attitude toward the holidays — and Christmas music.

Calvin Gilbert has served as’s managing editor since 2002. His background includes stints at the Nashville Banner, Radio & Records and Westwood One.