Ka-Ching With Twang – Country at Christmas Part One: Brett Eldredge and Kelly Clarkson

Look, I’m sure I’m not the only one to lump all the Christmas releases together but, in case you missed them or want to refresh your palate this season, there are plenty of collections to play alongside evergreen bestsellers by Lady A, Buble, Chris Young, Brad Paisley and a panoply of others.

Part Two deals with younger acts like Mitchell Tenpenny and Brett Young, as well as the first Christmas album from Christian bloke Josh Turner. Part three takes in Steve Wariner, Amanda Shires and The Pistol Annies, with an EP from Lori McKenna thrown in as well.

I’ll start with the big guns in the first part, as two old Christmas favourites have returned to market.

Brett Eldredge has been sold as the Nashville version of Michael Buble and suitably (that’s a pun because he wears a suit) is embarking on some holiday shows. Brett is Mr Christmas following the release of his album Glow, and that moniker gives the new collection its title. Brett has sought to refresh his Christmas catalogue before those shows having on Glow ticked off (deep breath): The First Noel, Silent Night, Winter Wonderland, White Christmas, The Christmas Song, Let It Snow, Baby It’s Cold Outside, I’ll Be Home For Christmas, The First Noel, Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,

Thus, with assistance from Idina Menzel’s musical director Rob Mounsey, who returns on production duties (check out his CV, it’s magnificent), we get the stories of Rudolph’s red nose, the merry gentlemen who bring tidings of comfort and joy (with some austere brass in tow) and bells that jingle all the way.

Brett has studied the great vocalists, his hero Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby in particular. His vocal on I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day, based on an H.W. Longfellow poem written 150 years ago during the American Civil War (‘the wrong must fail, the right prevail’), is spectacular and finely framed by the orchestra. Likewise Merry Christmas Baby, written in 1947 but a song I know best from Rod Stewart’s version, gets a wonderful guitar solo. Cool Yule (‘you gon’ flip when Ole Saint Nick takes a lick on the peppermint stick’) was written by comic Steve Allen in the 1950s and was first heard as a Louis Armstrong tune all about Santa’s visit. There is a faithful trumpet solo.

Andy Williams recorded It’s The Most Wonderful Time of the Year in 1963. Two generations hence, Brett can croon it on an album which repackages Christmas sentiment for a new era. And a new era must mean new Christmas songs. The title track, playing on his unofficial nickname, is an original composition from Brett and his great mate and producer Ross Copperman, It’s full of fingersnaps, sleighbells and various Christmas signifiers (‘you are the angel on the top of that evergreen’, ice skating, Santa on his sleigh) in the tradition of Big Band Buble.

The other original is Feels Like Christmas, a triple-time tune with egg-shaker percussion where ‘the only thing missing is you and me kissing’. There is a key change. The album ends with a ‘joyful and triumphant’ take on O Come All You Faithful. Brand Brett rolls on, and he’ll be over in the UK in May 2022 with a less seasonal set.

Kelly Clarkson is stepping into Ellen’s TV slot next year as she moves closer to American Treasure status. Having won American Idol all those years ago, she is able to straddle country and pop; only country radio’s hatred of women over 40 probably prevents her becoming country’s biggest star. As it is, Kelly will have another bumper Christmas this year, because her evergreen song Underneath The Tree is 99% Mariah Carey and keeps the royalties flowing after a tough few years.

That song came from Under The Mistletoe, released in 2013, which also featured her takes on Blue Christmas, Run Run Rudolph, and the ubiquitous pair of Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas and White Christmas. She also roped in Ronnie Dunn, her then-stepmum-in-law Reba and Trisha Yearwood, though she likely won’t play Winter Dreams any more as it was dedicated to her now ex-husband Brandon.

In recent years she has added three Christmas songs to her repertoire, which feature as bonus tracks on the new album. Don’t get confused either by All I Want For Christmas Is You, which has nothing to do with Mariah. Brett Eldredge appeared with Kelly on the toe-tapping Under The Mistletoe, which also came out over Christmas 2020, while Christmas Eve (‘I’ve waited all year baby just to see that sleigh’) dates back to 2017.

When Christmas Comes Around, which promotes an NBC TV special of the same name, is a resolutely mainstream album rather than a country one. We get her versions of It’s Beginning to Look A Lot Like Christmas, Rockin Around The Christmas Tree, Jingle Bell Rock and Wham!’s Last Christmas, which Taylor Swift gamely covered before she went pop. She turns that song, with a double key change, into a lament. She does a less good job with Santa Baby, which is a little too ‘Kelly-oke’. I want more sultriness.

Every year we get a popstar doing Christmas tunes and it always sounds the same: a dusting of sleigh bells, loud arrangements in a major key, musical allusions to Phil Spector’s Christmas Gift For You, some digital horn stabs and vocal acrobatics (see Cosy Little Christmas by Katy Perry). A few years ago it was Ariana Grande, who is drafted in to get Kelly’s streaming numbers up on the track Santa Can’t You Hear Me, which Kelly co-wrote and is at least a minute too long. Driven by a ‘keep…’ refrain, the verses build up to a soaring finale where the ladies want love for the season. Ariana, recently married, has her wish; Kelly, of course, is now single!

Cleverly, Kelly has written new songs called Glow and Merry Christmas Baby, perhaps to confuse the streaming services to see if they’re paying attention. The former, featuring the marvellous Chris Stapleton, is a come-on (‘you’re the only one I’ve got my eyes on’) with a Christmas theme – snow is falling, bells are ringing – but ‘even Christmas can’t compete with your glow’! The latter is a kiss-off (‘you can keep the charming lines and you can keep your wandering hands and eyes’), full of long notes that enable Kelly to show off her voice and the scorn she feels for her ex. It’s the first track on the album. Is there a hint of autobiography?

Merry Christmas (To The One I Used To Know) uses piano and orchestra to surround Kelly’s tale of woe (‘the past is all that’s left of you and I’), which is sung with typical panache. There’s a great line about how ‘on Christmas Eve, my gift to me is dancing with your ghost’. Oof.

The song that is likeliest to join Underneath The Tree as a big hit is the fun Christmas Isn’t Canceled (Just You), a divinely constructed song with some diminished chords and a fine chorus. Meanwhile, Christmas Come Early is crooned, as a tortured Kelly wants ‘a break from myself’.

The great Toby Gad, who wrote All Of Me and need never work again, co-wrote the ballad Blessed, where Kelly doesn’t want ‘to take a moment for granted’ and is ‘learning to have faith in forgiving’. I am sure she’ll perform this on her show and get some moms weeping. It’s a super melody tied to a self-reflective lyric. The key line is in the final verse: ‘I’ll never be perfect but I try my best to remember I’m blessed’.

It’s very American, if you know what I mean, much like the album itself.

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