Ka-Ching With Twang – Country at Christmas Part Three: Amanda Shires, Lori McKenna, Steve Wariner and The Pistol Annies

In Part One, I talked about Brett Eldredge and Kelly Clarkson. Part Two dealt with Mitchell Tenpenny, Brett Young and Josh Turner.

Amanda Shires was the driving force behind The Highwomen, corralling Maren, Brandi and Natalie to push the sound of women in the country genre. She strikes out on her own with an 11-track Christmas set, her ninth album under her own name, that mixes traditional with original.

As I have come to expect, there’s an austere minor key version of Silent Night, which is so old that they would have been strumming it on the prairies about 120 years ago. There’s the standard What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve, written by Frank Loesser in 1947 and full of jazzy chords and a charming lyric.

Two of the songs are written with Brittney Spencer. Album opener Magic Ooooooh (yep, six Os) is a song to sway to with a great arrangement and full of discovery, magic and a ‘starry feeling’ in Amanda’s heart that she can’t stop singing about. Blame It On The Mistletoe harks back to A Long December by Counting Crows, with similar chords and a mournful lyric: ‘There were stars and there was chemistry’ sets the mood for a song with a classic sound with no trace of fiddle, oddly, for a woman who plays the fiddle on record and in concert.

A Real Tree This Year opens with some snowfall-like piano and Amanda sings of her 52-week anticipation for the decorations. Slow Falling Snow (‘there’s something in the quiet hours calling me’) and Let’s Get Away both open with grandiose piano rolls and the hymnic, crochet-heavy melody on the latter song adds to the holiday feel even as she wants to ‘get away from Christmas…let’s pack a suitcase and get on out of here’.

The kiss-off Gone For Christmas is funky, with the punchy drums of session guy Fred Eltringham and some neat backing vocals from the McCrary singers who underscore what gifts Amanda wants, including ‘a date with Larry David’! That’d be pretty, pretty good.

There’s more tender fare on Home To Me, which includes longing notes and how ‘it’s too cold to walk’ in a way that sounds like Dolly Parton singing Carole King songs. Wish For You is a riff on the chords from Let It Be, with added ‘snow angels in the morning’ and some passionate vocals, as well as a pretty and unrestrained fiddle solo from Amanda.

The album ends with another waltz, Always Christmas Around Here. ‘My sisters aren’t speaking!’ she sighs, while singer Lawrence Rothman intones a new year greeting to close out an album rich in musicality and personality.

Lori McKenna, who has spent over 20 Christmases worrying about presents for one or more of her five kids, has written five tunes for Christmas Is Right Here. Before the new ones, she has covered Paul McCartney’s Wonderful Christmastime with a stripped arrangement that is worlds away from last year’s Lady A interpretation.

Lori’s famous friends appear in the credits. Luke Laird and Barry Dean produce the EP and were in the room for Christmas Without Crying and Hail Mary: the former references old catalogues, Sunday hymns and ‘stringing up those lights’ remembering grandpa where the melody pulls on the heartstrings; the latter sounds like a grown-up Taylor Swift song, full of rhythmic propulsion and singable melodic lines. Lori flutters in the top of her range in the middle eight before a blockbuster, movie soundtrack strings section.

Time is the essential ingredient in a Lori McKenna song and, as with Last Christmas by Wham, it makes her own tunes a series of winners. The Love Junkies (Lori, Liz Rose and Hillary Lindsey as any fool knows) came together for North Pole, a waltz full of sense impressions like mom’s cooking, snowfall (‘if we’re lucky’), sisters in PJs and parents making them wait for gifts while Lori namechecks a series of places in America which are now ‘as far away as the North Pole…What I wouldn’t give for a memory more’. The final line is a nice pay-off.

Still Christmas In Nashville is the kind of heart-warming song I try to write, with Lri able to include ‘mac and cheese’ and ‘drugstore makeup’ inside one of the gentle verses about ‘the city that dreamers built’. A muted trumpet joins in to answer lines about dreamers who ‘live inside a snow globe’ (come on!!!!).

The EP closes with Grateful, a McKenna 100-percenter where she takes us to church: ‘Mother Mary’s holding out her arms, I wish I could rush into them’ (come on!!!). With lyrics about mortality and mistakes, this is almost a challenge for the listener to call someone they love after they hear it. Lori is a songwriter’s songwriter, which means she can walk down the street unmolested except for people who have heard at least one minute of her music. She must influence so many writes in Nashville, who will rush to put this on as they deck their own halls. Lori is a treasure.

Opry Member Steve Wariner offers his third collection of songs for the holidays. On Christmas Memories, from 1998, he included I Saw Three Ships, Do You Hear What I Hear and Let It Snow, while in 2010 Guitar Christmas offered Deck The Halls, The Christmas Song, Jingle Bells and much more.

On Feels Like Christmas Time, we get both sides. The album is warm, deliberately I reckon, and perfect for winter, like a dressing gown or a blanket. The First Noel is arranged brilliantly for a small ensemble, while It Came Upon The Midnight Clear and Silent Night are repeated from past Christmas sets; indeed, it’s a third outing for God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, which sounds great on the acoustic guitar.

Originals include the title track, a warm lyric about a time of year where warmth is as essential as Jesus. There’s the piano-led On Christmas Morning, which sets the domestic scene and contains a revelation that ‘my children’s eyes is more than worth the price I have to pay’ for buying all those gifts, and the fun guitar piece Tennessee Snowfall has a gorgeous melody that I’d love to add lyrics to.

Lyrics appear in It Won’t Be Christmas (‘if you’re not here with me’), which sets a tableau of imagery to another languid, classic chord progression. It reminds me of mid-period George Michael. Christmas in Your Arms, written with his fellow Opry stalwart Bill Anderson, drop-tunes the guitar to accompany a lyric about the place Steve wants to spend the holidays: anywhere, so long as it’s in ‘your arms’.

The tender Our Savior Is Born (‘he was born in the hay’) evokes the same feelings as the medley of Away In A Manger and O Little Town of Bethlehem, with a fast-fingered We Wish You A Merry Christmas tacked on for a sort of encore. I would love to hear Steve and Vince Gill do A Very Country Christmas. I wonder how much they’d do it for…

Finally, Hell of a Holiday is the latest chapter in the career of The Pistol Annies. Miranda, Angeleena and Ashley reconvene for a seasonal release. ‘The whole world is decorating and it’s only November 1!’ is how the title track goes, as the trio tick off some Christmas signifiers to ease the listener into the set, helped by some sensitive production that puts the vocal up front.

Angaleena takes lead on Harlan County Coal; ‘not a creature was sober, especially not my spouse!’ is the introductory spoken couplet to a song about ‘making decorations after shotgun shelves’ and how, if arguments aren’t resolved and he doesn’t help with preparing for Christmas, it’s a lump of coal for him! Conversely, Make You Blue is a marvellous pop song with a Be My Baby beat on which the Annies sets the mood with jingling bells and decorated shops, reindeer ready to fly and pumpkin pie in the oven. ‘Don’t let all this red and green make you blue’ is a fine lyric. There is a half-step key change.

Leanin’ On Jesus opens with hubbub and whispers before Miranda sings over a kick drum about leaving her ‘restless worried mind’ behind her because Jesus is true. There is an organ solo and a big gospel finish with some hallelujahs.

Some songs are as gentle as snowfall on a windowpane. The Only Thing I Wanted (‘was you’) sounds like a lullaby sung by a mother to her baby or a wife to her loved one. Believing is a gentle song of faith in 6/8 while the ladies sing Happy Birthday to Jesus with fluttering melodies and warm harmonies. The song Joy is a hymn to how ‘love, joy, it takes time’, three stanzas which condense life into a lovely melody. It’s proper songwriting.

There are takes on Sleigh Ride, which as with Runaway June sounds terrific arranged for three female voices, and an a cappella Auld Lang Syne, while there’s a clever cover of Merle Haggard’s If We Make It Through December, which notes how ‘Daddy can’t afford no Christmas gift’. I hope that Come on Christmas Time makes it into the canon of great seasonal songs: the girls all have Santa on their list, taking it in turns to describe what they want to do with him.

Get some Girl Power this Christmas, if you tire of Brett and Buble.

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