10 Must-Hear Classic Country Christmas Albums - Rolling Stone
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10 Must-Hear Old-School Country Christmas Albums

From Brenda Lee to Buck Owens, a round-up of country’s best holiday releases

10 Old-School Christmas Classics

Country music and Christmas music are deeply entwined. For starters, both genres foreground family and tradition, novelty and loss, and both take it on faith that we probably aren’t ever going to get everything on our Christmas list: The contingent cheer of Merle’s Haggard’s “If We Make It through December” falls right in line with other holiday-song sentiments like “I’ll be home for Christmas… if only in my dreams” and “Someday soon we all will be together… if the fates allow.”

Where would Christmas be without country music? Singing cowboy Gene Autry is more responsible for establishing the Christmas record as an annual and lucrative pop subgenre than anyone not named Bing Crosby. And, right this second, Nashville Sound classics such as “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” Jingle Bell Rock,” “Pretty Paper” and “Blue Christmas” remain in heavy rotation on your local all-Christmas radio station.

As it’s turned out, 2018 has been a fantastic year for new country Christmas releases, with good-to-great holiday offerings by Rodney Crowell and the Mavericks, the Old 97’s and JD McPherson. What follows, though, is strictly old-school, the best-of-the-best Christmas long players released during the first few decades of the Christmas-album era.

Brenda Lee

Brenda Lee, ‘Merry Christmas From Brenda Lee’ (Decca, 1964)

Of course this fantastic Brenda Lee Christmas set opens with her original 1958 “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree.” But it gathers as well Lee’s subsequent Christmas-chart entries, her takes on “This Time of the Year,” “Jingle Bell Rock” and, best of all, “Christmas Will Be Just Another Day,” an Owen Bradley-produced confection, sweet and miserable both, that’s one of the great unsung pop records of its era.

Buck Owens

Buck Owens, ‘Christmas With Buck Owens and His Buckaroos’ (Capitol, 1965)

Owens’ first Christmas album category is a strong candidate for the best-ever country Christmas. Twelve mostly bummed-out holiday tracks, nine of them Buck originals (“Santa Looked a Lot like Daddy,” “Blue Christmas Lights,” “Santa’s Gonna Come on a Stage Coach” and more), plus a couple of seasonal Buckaroos instrumentals, and all of it wrapped in the group’s indelible Bakersfield style.

Christmas Cratediggers Tip: It’s long out of print but A Merry Hee Haw Christmas, from 1970, combines Christmas with Buck Owens and Owens’ nearly-as-fun 1968 holiday release Christmas Shopping for what’s arguably the best double holiday album ever.

Loretta Lynn

Loretta Lynn, ‘Country Christmas’ (Decca, 1966)

Lynn released her first Christmas long player just as she was emerging as a major singing-and-songwriting star. It includes its share of standards — her hushed-lullaby take on “Away in a Manger” is gorgeous — but most of the set’s several highlights are ones she wrote herself: the festive party preparations of the title track, for instance, though more often bitter-hearted Christmas gems like “To Heck With old Santa Claus” and “I Won’t Decorate Your Christmas Tree.” The Hank Cochran-penned closer, “Gift of the Blues,” finds Loretta suffering through what sounds like just about the bluest Christmas on record. Country Christmas is often listed, as it should be, among the greatest-ever country Christmas albums. It speaks to how little respect the genre gets, though, that no one ever says what should also be obvious: This one goes on the short list of the best Loretta Lynn albums.

Elvis Presley

Elvis Presley, ‘Elvis’ Christmas Album’ (RCA, 1957)

It’s mostly forgotten today, but some of the most heated backlash to the rise of Elvis Presley was in reaction to his Christmas album. Not because the album included naughty-is-nice blues rockers like “Santa Claus Is Back in Town” or the eventual seasonal staple “Blue Christmas” (which wouldn’t actually become a hit for several years). The controversy was due to Elvis the Pelvis’ presumably blasphemous, but in truth only sweet and reverent, versions of “Silent Night” and “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” and also because Presley’s Drifter-inspired “White Christmas” so angered Irving Berlin he had his staff lobby radio stations to ban it. Nowadays better just to proclaim it a masterpiece of the Nashville Sound.

Emmylou Harris

Emmylou Harris, ‘Light of the Stable: The Christmas Album’ (Warner Bros., 1979)

Eschewing humor and novelty in favor of an all-earnest-all-the-time emotional attack, glancing backward not only in its sentiments but its moody, rootsy acoustic picking, Emmylou Harris’ Light of the Stable marks the arrival of a holiday approach we’d today call “Americana Christmas.” Backed by her famed the Hot Band, and joined by guest stars Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt, Harris croons and cries her way through “Silent Night,” “Away in a Manger” and other reason-for-the season carols gorgeous enough to move the heart of even this purely secular Christmas fan. “Beautiful Star of Bethlehem” is a devastating utopian prayer.

Charley Pride

Charley Pride, ‘Christmas in My Home Town’ (RCA, 1970)

One gift Christmas albums have given to many country singers is the permission to explore sounds outside their comfort zones. Change its title and lyrics, and the fiddle-driven honky-tonker “Santa and the Kids,” or the twangy waltz “Christmas and Love,” would fit right in on just about any other Charley Pride album. Most of what’s here, though, find Pride singing far poppier melodies than we’re used to hearing from him, and in uncharacteristically lush and playful settings. “They Stood in Silent Prayer” cloaks Pride in a dynamic wall of sound — and sounds like awe. (Also: Is this the best country Christmas album cover ever? Yes. Yes, it is.)

Gene Autry

Gene Autry, ‘Merry Christmas With Gene Autry’ (Columbia, 1950)

Bing Crosby hits like 1942’s “White Christmas” and the following year’s “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” were War-era wistful and adult. By contrast, Gene Autry’s later string of Christmas hits were peace-time playful: “Here Comes Santa Claus (Down Santa Claus Lane)” in 1947, “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” in ’48 and “Frosty the Snowman” two years later were child-like novelties for the whole family. On Merry Christmas With Gene Autry, Columbia Records gathered those hits plus a few other Xmas tunes on an eight-song, 10” 78 R.P.M. album in 1950. Its jaunty, low-key western swing still charms, which is why it’s been repeatedly repackaged through the years, for example on an expanded 2002 reissue titled A Gene Autry Christmas.

Christmas Shopper Beware: The Original: Gene Autry Sings Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer and Other Christmas Classics, where a giant Autry stands astride a cartoon Santa and nine tiny reindeer is not, in fact, “Original.” Granted, it’s a charming album in its own right but is actually filled (Bah! Humbug!) with late-Fifties re-recordings.

Lynn Anderson

Lynn Anderson, ‘The Christmas Album’ (Columbia, 1971)

The Christmas Album repurposes the signature Countrypolitan arrangements of contemporaneous Lynn Anderson hits like “Rose Garden” and “How Can I Unlove You.” Highlights include the subtly horny “Mr. Mistletoe,” tickled all through by the whirlwind pedal steel of Lloyd Green; the goodwill-toward-man ballad “Spirit of Christmas,” one of her mom Liz’s songs; and the blue-and-bummed “Don’t Wish Me Merry Christmas,” written by Anderson’s producer and then-husband Glenn Sutton. (A recent expanded reissue of the album includes Anderson promo spots from when both “Don’t Wish…” and “Ding a Ling the Christmas Bell” were chosen as the theme songs for the annual Christmas Seals campaign.)

'Christmas Day With Kitty Wells'

Kitty Wells, ‘Christmas Day With Kitty Wells’ (Decca, 1962)

Few holiday albums were made by country women during the first decades of the Christmas-album era. The earliest (and out of print since cassettes were still a thing) was Christmas Day With Kitty Wells. As you’d predict, and perhaps even insist, the Queen of Country Music makes sure here to cover her genre’s Christmas bases with Xmas standards made famous by Gene Autry and Ernest Tubb. Her reach inside the Irving Berlin holiday song bag, however, pulls out the unexpected “Ole Kris Kringle,” and the Nashville Sound-ing “Christmas Ain’t Like Christmas Anymore” is a lost lonely-in-December classic.

Ernest Tubb, 'Blue Christmas'

Ernest Tubb and the Texas Troubadours, ‘Blue Christmas’ (Decca, 1964)

Ol’ E.T.’s 1949 version of “Blue Christmas,” written by Bill Hayes because he was sick of hearing Bing going on every year about a white one, was another of the mid-century smashes that established the Yuletide music genre. That version, decorated with haunting organ and faux-Andrew Sisters, is not the one here. Rather, this “Blue Christmas” is straight-up holiday honky-tonk, just like the collection’s other mostly 1950s-vintage Ernest Tubb releases. Those include Tubb’s own “I’ll Be Trimming My Christmas Tree With Tears” and “I’ll Be Walking the Floor This Christmas.” Also: “Blue Snowflakes,” a “Blue Christmas” sequel written by Bill Hayes after those annual Xmas royalty checks got him back in the holiday spirit.

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