Christmas is three days away, and if you haven’t heard, there are quite a few holiday country music albums out there for you to play during your family gatherings this year.
But if you’re looking for something other than the day’s latest smattering of Christmas songs, here’s a playlist with a little more variety. There’s something here for everyone, whether you’re a pop-country fan, a Johnny Cash devotee or an Alabama acolyte.
10. “Merry Christmas from the Family,” Robert Earl Keen
Robert Earl Keen’s portrait of a Texas get-together perfectly captures what it’s like to go home to relatives you may only see once a year. This is the soundtrack for that moment in every Christmas weekend where everyone’s had a little bit too much spiked eggnog and even though you may be fed up with some of your family’s antics, you love them anyway.
9. “Oklahoma Christmas,” Bruce Robison and Kelly Willis
If you find yourself crossing state lines every year to visit those in-laws that are more religious than you are, Kelly and Bruce have a funny story for you.
8. “Grateful for Christmas,” Hayes Carll
Carll’s tale of a family’s trip home to Waco, or Houston, or whatever Texas town they’re celebrating this year, was included on “KMAG YOYO (& Other American Stories).” The song is more of a spoken word piece about what a typical family gathering is like in the Carll household: burnt food, great company, card games and thankfulness all around. It’s a heartwarming original.
7. “A Willie Nice Christmas,” Kacey Musgraves
One of the more lighthearted moments on Musgraves’ oft-melancholy “Very Kacey Christmas,” this duet with Willie Nelson takes a kitsch premise and turns it into a catchy singalong.
6. “Just Me and These Ponies (For Christmas This Year)”, Corb Lund
Corb Lund’s sad take on the holidays is a story about a lonely rancher who probably won’t be getting any holiday visitors, but goes to the trouble of putting up decorations and wrapping presents just in case.
5. “The Christmas Song,” Jamey Johnson
A part of the only original album of music Johnson has released since “The Guitar Song,” this new version of an old standard sounds like a slow Texas waltz with some harmonica thrown in. The entire rest of his “The Christmas Song” album is one of the few great modern Christmas collections, as well, though it’s hard to find online. Your best bet is iTunes.
4. “Christmas Memories,” Alabama
This album was (and still is) a mainstay in my family’s house every Christmas. My earliest memories of it involve 5-year-old Jake putting the CD into our giant 60-disc changer along with all of the other Christmas music we had so we could listen to them while we decorated the tree. Our entertainment center at the time was a behemoth of 70s wood-paneling, and the speakers were as tall as me. I felt like I was hearing some relic of days gone by when I heard it for the first time, and when I later understood what “nostalgia” was, I pinpointed the exact emotion I felt when hearing this song for the first time.
Christmas is a time for joy and happiness, yes, but the season is also sad for so many people, and no country song fully realizes this sentiment more than Alabama’s “Christmas Memories.” Nostalgia is rooted in sadness, and Christmas is when many people get the most wistful about years gone by.
3. “O Holy Night,” Carrie Underwood
Carrie Underwood sounds nothing short of divine in her passionate cover of this hymn. I can’t think of anyone alive in country music right now better suited for this song.
2. “The Christmas Guest,” Johnny Cash
Before “Footprints in the Sand” and other folksy religious aphorisms became destined for Pinterest boards and Facebook memes with Minions on them, the source material actually inspired some pretty great pieces of art. This Johnny Cash cover of a Grandpa Jones adaptation of a folk story is a spoken-word riff on Jesus’ “Whatever you do to the least of these, you do to me” speech in the Bible. It’s a nice reminder to consider those less fortunate all year-round.
1. “Pretty Paper,” Willie Nelson
The essential country Christmas ballad.
Gone Country aims to thoughtfully explore the country music genre and where it’s headed, with a focus on national trends and buzzworthy news of the week. For info about album releases and concerts, check out this week’s Country Music Roundup.
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