In the second of three pieces, I talk about three albums by three of country music’s most beloved female performers
Dolly Parton – A Holly Dolly Christmas
The big two albums are by Carrie and Dolly. Dolly first, as is always the case, country music’s beloved grandma.
After her Christmas duets album to plug a 1984 Christmas special with Kenny Rogers, A Holly Dolly Christmas sees the girl singer go solo. Seven are original Parton compositions and she delivers her vocals with so much character throughout. Christmas on the Square is a country Christmas song with fiddle, banjo and massed harmonies. There’s even a yee-haw thrown in for good measure. Comin’ Home For Christmas (‘Save a place for me’) is a domestic setting with candles, keys under mats and ‘sweet memories’.
Circle of Love is a different type of country song, wishing Jesus a happy birthday and praising the Lord who gives ‘salvation for all’ and ‘that gift from above’. Pretty Paper drafts in its writer, Willie Nelson, to sing about the wrapping of gifts like pencils with humble ribbons. You Are My Christmas is a duet with younger brother Randy, who make a good case for family being the true meaning of the season. It’s catchy as well (‘You you you!’) and it’s very country. You can never take the Tennessee out of the superstar.
There is plenty of Cyrus family representation here: Billy Ray is on Christmas Where We Are (another song about how ‘your love is the only gift I need’) and Miley is on Christmas Is. That song is a sweet ballad where godmother and goddaughter hymn about giving, sharing and ‘kindness, love and compassion’. It’s a secular religious song with a light dashing of ‘His Glory’ that may well pick up some traction this year, even though Miley literally phones in her performance.
Cuddle Up, Cozy Down Christmas drafts in Mr Christmas himself, Michael Buble, in a song which updates Baby It’s Cold Outside for the woke era. I like the image of Michael and Dolly curling up, and I would have hoped Kenny Rogers would have sung on this had he not passed away in March. The duet of All I Want For Christmas Is You repeats the Islands in the Stream trick of having the male vocalist, here Jimmy Fallon, singing in a different key to Dolly. It’s fun for them but the listener will be singing along and drowning the pair of them out.
The other evergreen numbers include Holly Jolly Christmas, I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus and the deathless Mary Did You Know, which was once recorded by Kenny himself. I wish she had had a crack at Wizzard or Slade, as a bone to throw to her UK fans, but her audience will spin this with a great deal of regularity this December. A little bit of Dolly is always a good thing.
Carrie Underwood – My Gift
I have no idea whyCarrie Underwood has chosen 2020 to release her first Christmas album. Maybe the calendar has to work out so that her release is the tentpole one. Perhaps motherhood has taken her away from the studio in the last few years but the Oklahoma girl’s album My Gift will be the CD of choice for mums and aunts in middle America this year.
As you would expect from a pious religious girl, making music for pious religious girls, there’s a lot of God and Jesus on My Gift. It opens with the Ode to Joy-type melody of Joyful Joyful We Adore Thee, which is almost a cappella because the backing track is barely there. It’s as always fun to hear what beloved voices have done to beloved songs: Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas and Away In A Manger, which bends the melody into new shapes, add orchestra or piano respectively to her Idol-winning voice. O Come All Ye Faithful, O Holy Night and Silent Night leap out of the hymn books, while Mary Did You Know is given the Carrie treatment just as Dolly had left her personal imprint on the song.
Little Drummer Boy features Carrie’s son Isaiah taking the second verse sounding like one of the Little Rascals. It will melt anyone’s heart even though I prefer Bing and David marrying the song with Peace On Earth.
There are a pair of original compositions by Carrie, David Garcia and Brett James. Let There Be Peace is a gospel tune which channels Aretha Franklin and Michael Jackson; rather than presents, she wants world peace (good luck!). There is a key change. Sweet Baby Jesus is a songwriting exercise which imagines the baby lying in the manger, with ‘tiny feet and tiny hands’. It’s inoffensive but decent.
Carrie has one foot in Christian music and I am sure there is a full-on Christian album that she must want to do at some point. As it is, this album is a good example of brand extension. It tries to appease all bases and the two originals will sound excellent at any Christmas With Carrie concerts that will make her money in the next decade.
Talking of money, John Legend (the African-American Buble or Groban) both gives her Hallelujah and appears on it, though it was left off his own Christmas album from last year. Well done to John for trying to match Carrie for vocal chops, and for writing a hymn-like contemporary song full of angels, choirs, ‘moonlit air’ and a wish to ‘hold on to hope’. If it’s pushed properly, this may go top 10 and become a Christmas staple, ensuring that Isaiah can be sent to some posh schools and get horse riding lessons in perpetuity.
Terri Clark – It’s Christmas…Cheers!!
To Canada! Terri Clark offers ten tracks including a waltz called Cowboy Christmas, co-written by Erin Enderlin and featuring the great Ricky Skaggs. Snow is like tinsel ‘in the Montana sky’ but there’s a melancholy in the second verse.
A very old song about Santa and his reindeer, Up On The Housetop, was written in 1864 and is updated with Terri’s terrific ‘ho ho ho’s and a brief accordion solo.
Away In A Manger and Silent Night are almost contractually obliged to be present, although Vince Gill and a fiddle solo are present on the latter and Pam Tillis, Suzy Bogguss and a fine string section adorn the former. There’s also Winter Wonderland and a big band treatment of Jingle Bells, a jazzy The Christmas Song and a hillbilly-tinged Silver Bells with the fulsome backing vocals of The Oak Ridge Boys.
As on most holiday albums, Terri has a crack at the ubiquitous pair of I’ll Be Home For Christmas and Let It Snow. The latter drafts in Dierks Bentley who, as far as I know, has not recorded a festive album. Maybe it’s his turn in 2021, although there’s a new album due shortly.