Country Jukebox Jury: Standalone Christmas Songs 2020

In the first of three pieces, which also deal in LPs and EPs, I look at individual songs released by country acts.

Florida Georgia Line want to get Lit This Year and I completely missed the drugs reference when I heard it initially. Lit can mean a Christmas tree decorated with lights and a party being on fire ie lit. Santa, mistletoe and eggnog all appear but I’m surprised how chirpy the song is. I’d expect stadium rock guitars but I like the light dashes of banjo.

Dan + Shay want you to Take Me Home for Christmas, in a song which needed six people to write and is produced by Dan himself. They encourage the lady to take them to their home town, maybe ‘do a little carolling’ and drinking with high school friends. The chorus is very strong indeed and there’s a key change and some of Shay’s renowned vocal gymnastics. I imagine this will get lots of spins this year.

Gary LeVox, who is now 50, has enlisted the help of composer Stephan Moccio (who worked on Earned It by The Weeknd) to write Christmas Will Be Different This Year, which also involved Natalie Hemby. Stephan’s album Winter Poems is full of piano arrangements of traditional tunes including, sweetly, Walking In The Air from the Snowman and the Francophone anthem Petit Papa Noel. This one, which isn’t on Stephan’s album, showcases Gary’s once in a generation voice (which Shay is copying all the way to the bank). He sings about snow ‘falling like angels’ but nobody can go to church or deck the halls and, significantly, Gary cannot be with the object of his song, perhaps a parent or a loved one. It’s simple and effective and will comfort those who lost family members this year. Rascal Flatts’s holiday album came out in 2016 and is called The Greatest Gift of All, so go listen if you want more of Gary singing silent nights and herald angels.

Olivia Lane has co-written Feeling Like Christmas, a toast in the form of a song which in its first 30 seconds quotes Little Drummer Boy’s rum-pa-pum-pum before adding sleigh bells and a very festive chorus with all the Christmassy cadences. Santa has granted her ‘someone to kiss’ and it’s the sort of song you can sway to with your loved ones this year, in a socially distanced way.

Kassi Ashton is having a Hard Candy Christmas, with strings surrounding her as she struggles through the holiday season. Her vocal is tremendous and Kassi is playing the long game. Maybe 2021 will be the year that everyone, in Nashville and outside it, knows of her obvious talent. There’s a key change too!

Darius Rucker’s band Hootie & The Blowfish Won’t Be Home For Christmas this year, assisted by Abigail Hodges, daughter of the great David who was in Evanescence. She’s writing to Santa who doesn’t want toys but wants her father, who is a soldier, to get home for the holidays. Darius, as the soldier, takes the second and third verses and even mentions ‘the birth of the King’ before a sha-la chorus is both joyous and sad, because it appears wars are more important than Santa. Sorry, Abigail.

In 2013, Kelly Clarkson put out her Christmas album, including the perennial Underneath The Tree which is a nice little earner for Kelly, as well as covers of White Christmas, Silent Night (with Reba and Trisha) and I’ll Be Home For Christmas, which is the American version of Wizzard or Slade. Reminding people of the album’s existence are two new songs.

Under the Mistletoe with Brett Eldredge, a song she wrote herself and captures the moment that a lady kisses a man. In a year where Kelly has split with her husband, this sounds bittersweet. Maybe she’s trying to tell us that Brett is her new beau, even though his vocals barely touch those of its composer. There’s help from RnB group Atlantic Holiday, too.

To kick off the covers section, there is a song called All I Want For Christmas Is You. It was a country one-hit wonder Christmas tune by Vince Vance and the Valiants which LeAnn Rimes covered on her 2004 Christmas album (see, everybody’s done one). It’s basically My Heart Belongs Only To You by Bobby Vinton with angels, mistletoe and Christmas trees. Kelly does what she does effortlessly. There is a key change.

I’ll Be Home for Christmas was made famous by Bing Crosby in 1943 before a plethora of country stars, including Pentatonix, Lady A, Reba and Rascal Flatts, have recorded it. Groban and Buble fans will know the song, which Chrissy Metz gives a jazzy treatment and sings with charm and panache. This was supposed to be the year Chrissy, from This Is Us, brought out an album but I imagine the pandemic has pushed it into 2021.

After Lady A’s success with Mariah’s million-dollar tune, Morgan Evans has given it a spin on an acoustic guitar and his Keith Urban-ish vocal. It sounds like a campfire singalong at an Australian beach over Christmastime and, even though it removes a lot of the original diminished chords, it does its job. But it’ll return your ears to Mariah’s song, which only topped the US chart last year for the first time and has never been a UK number one.

Brett Kissel, meanwhile, is hanging out with Frosty the Snowman at the honkytonk, giving the old standard a traditional country arrangement with plenty of Western swing, Canadian style. There is a key change and a magnificent ending.

Jimmie Allen has teamed up with the duo Louis York, aka Nashville writers Claude Kelly and Chuck Harmony, and the trio The Shindellas. Their tune What Does Christmas Mean updates the track which originally emerged in 2017. The bonhomie is evident from the off, with some neat doobie-doos from the trio and sleigh bells running quietly underneath the lead line.

Gabby Barrett has had a good year and will hopefully celebrate the birth of her first child next year. The First Noel opens with an orchestral flourish and some sentimental piano, as Ross Copperman shapes the backing for Gabby’s voice to shine. The acoustic guitar in the first verse gives way to a warm, Grobanish second verse. Gabby sings the final chorus as if she is in the presence of the King of Israel himself.

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