Country Jukebox Jury: EPs and LPs for Xmas 2020 – Lady A, Home Free, Maddie & Tae and Runaway June

Two EPs, a new album and a reissued favourite with bonus tracks round off this three-part celebration of this season’s new Christmas music

Last year, Sounds Like Nashville put together a list of the 12 essential country Christmas albums. Vince Gill, Martina McBride, Faith Hill, Chris Young, Kacey Musgraves, Brett Eldredge and his royal Garthness and Lady Trisha all made the list, edging out so many acts who have also plugged seasonal product. In the peloton are Kenny Chesney, Brad Paisley, Blake Shelton, Buck Owens, Loretta Lynn, George Strait, Brooks & Dunn, Rascal Flatts, Darius Rucker and even Merle Haggard. Some acts like Reba and Alan Jackson have multiple Christmas releases!!

Lady A – On This Winter’s Night (Deluxe)

The trio were called Lady Antebellum when they released their fourth album in 2012. Now on Big Machine and with no new album to promote this Christmas, they have decided to add four new tracks to the set.

The original collection included a softer version of All I Want For Christmas Is You and covers of old favourites: A Holly Jolly Christmas, Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas, a cabaret version of Blue Christmas, Christmas (Baby Please Come Home), Donny Hathaway’s This Christmas and Let It Snow. For religious fans Hillary dragged Silent Night and The First Noel out of the hymn books.

The title track was an original composition with gentle strings and piano underscoring a lyric about stars, mistletoe, wrapping presents, snowflakes like frosting and people smiling. The melody is beautiful, with an assist from the great Tom Douglas and a children’s choir singing ‘we’ll count our blessings’. The song is among Lady A’s finest moments.

This album is really a four-track EP appended to something many people will already own. The song Christmas Through Your Eyes is the new offering, written by the band. Whereas they weren’t parents in 2012, now they will use the proceeds from this reissue to buy presents for their kids and partners which, would you believe it, is the theme of this song. Hillary takes the lead, singing of ‘reindeer jammies’ and watching old video footage and ‘how hard it was to fall asleep’. Lady A’s target audience of soccer moms will go wild for this.

Otherwise, three old favourites are updated with Dann Huff’s experienced production trickery: The Beach Boys’ Little Saint Nick (which ‘comes this time each year’); Ray Charles’ That Spirit of Christmas; and an orchestral version of Paul McCartney’s Wonderful Christmastime which is better than the original.

Maddie & Tae – We Need Christmas

Maddie & Tae are two pious girls who have kept religion mostly out of their music so far will surely pivot to Christian music when they can. We Need Christmas has six tracks produced by the team of Derek Wells and Jimmy Robbins.

There’s a glorious and simple arrangement of O Come All Ye Faithful which showcases those trademark harmonies, with the girls intoning a Bible verse as a coda. There are also three songs tackled by Lady A in 2012: Holly Jolly Christmas, This Christmas and a gentle acoustic version of Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) which initially threw me as I was hearing the song in a straight four when it’s in 12/8. You won’t have that problem because it’s a perennial. Phil Spector can never be cancelled.

There are two originals here too. Merry Married Christmas celebrates the girls’ newlywed status; indeed, Tae’s husband is in the writing credits. It made me go ‘ooh’ as the intro came in and I can check a lot of squares on my New Christmas Song bingo card: snow, cheers, holly, presents (though not necessary since the girls have their guy) and sleigh bells underneath the chorus. It’s irresistible and a beacon of joy. I love the line about wanting to start a new tradition.

We Need Christmas namechecks Charlie Brown, hugs with family, winter coats, snow on the road (there is always snow, isn’t there?) and ‘a little healing’ and ‘joy (there is always joy, isn’t there?). The song is lightly religious, spiritual if anything, but I am sure there is some political commentary too. It’s also nice to see Salvation Army cans and carols in the second verse, which is apt for two lovely religious girls who have followed up their second album with an excellent holidays project. Marital bliss must make for good music for Maddie & Tae.

Runaway June – When I Think About Christmas

Almost mirroring Maddie & Tae, this EP gathers three covers and two originals. A pedal steel-assisted Sleigh Ride, O Holy Night and Let It Snow are present and correct, with all the three-part harmonies in the right places.

When I Think About Christmas itself mentions gifts, snow, tinsel, mistletoe and that ‘the only present I need’ is you. The pedal steel solo redeems the song but even that is slightly ruined by shouts to ‘take it home’. It’s traditional enough, though.

Christmas on the Radio was written by the guys behind High Hopes by Panic at the Disco and Yesterday’s Song by Hunter Hayes. It’s jaunty and mentions snow in the very first word of the song. Otherwise we have ‘Jingle Bells and mistletoe’, ‘chestnuts on the fire’, White Christmas, Let It Snow, Jack Frost and a request to ‘make my wish come true’. Again the song sounds like enormous fun, both to write and record, especially with new addition Natalie Stovall on fiddle.

Home Free – Warmest Winter

You know the a cappella group Pentatonix? Home Free are that but with boots on.

Opening with the Alvin & the Chipmunks ditty Christmas Don’t Be Late, there are several marvellous originals here, like the sentimental and nostalgic Warmest Winter and triple-time pop ballad Snow Globe (‘you shook me up…Maybe we should settle down’), which I do wish had acoustic instruments on it rather than lots of bass voices.

You can tell Home Free are experts at writing seasonal material, having put out albums of Christmas stuff in 2014 and 2016. Christmas Ain’t For The Lonely is a beautiful but melancholy song where there’s ‘nothing left but memories’ when you have broken up with someone. Christmas in LA and Cold Hard Cash (as a present) are a lot more fun, while What We Need Is Love is a carpe diem song which benefits from stripping the melody and harmony back to just the voice. It sounds gorgeous and ends the album terrifically.

Rachel Wammack pops up on Amy Grant’s song Tennessee Christmas and Striking Matches join them on Run Run Rudolph, which has a beatbox solo that makes Home Free an acquired taste. Alabama, meanwhile, appear on a version of their own tune Christmas In Dixie where Randy Owen’s fabled voice is enveloped by a five-part arrangement that reminds me of NSYNC. Home Free are a male vocal harmony group without the dance moves or the overt sex appeal.

I love the jaunty take on Stevie Wonder’s What Christmas Means To Me and Winter Song, written and sung originally by Ingrid Michaelson and Sara Bareilles, turns every note into a vocal sound, wrapping the listener in sound. Fans of the quintet, who won the NBC show The Sing Off, helped their online campaign for an online concert reach its target within a few hours. The total approached $250,000 and those who didn’t pledge for the show can buy tickets for it at HomeFreeVIP.com. Featuring skits and guest appearances from the album’s featured acts, it premieres on December 2 with six showings in total over the course of the week.

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