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RS Country Music Picks: 2020 Holiday Songs

Lera Lynn, Maddie & Tae, and the Last Bandoleros offer tunes for an unusual Christmas season

Maddie and TaeMaddie and Tae

Maddie & Tae's "We Need Christmas" is a must-hear song this week.

Joseph Llanes*

There is a wealth of new holiday music from country and Americana artists this year. As we enter the heart of an unusual Yuletide season, Rolling Stone Country rounds up some of this year’s best holiday songs.

Scarlett Burke & Hailey Whitters, “Howdy Christmas”

“A little eggnog in my whiskey,” is all Scarlett Burke and Hailey Whitters say they need to get in the holiday spirit in this throwback country twanger. Donning their best “boots and bells,” the songwriters ready for a Christmas at home — even if it’s only in their minds. Burke is the star of the audio series Make It Up As We Go, while Whitters has been earning year-end raves for her album The Dream. Together, they’re as potent as that boozy nog.

Thompson Square, “It’s Almost Christmas”

Thompson Square crank up the cozy vibes of the holidays with “It’s Almost Christmas,” one of a pair of songs featuring Shawna and Keifer Thompson this week. Sporting a classic country-meets-pop vocal arrangement that’s heavy on mandolin, the song puts Keifer in the lead vocal role, singing about his anticipation for the days ahead. “It’s getting colder now/Snow is coming down/the leaves are falling off the trees,” he intones. It’ll make you want to curl up on the couch with a cup of cocoa.

The Last Bandoleros, “Feliz Navidad”

With a rat-a-tat drumbeat and vibrant Tex-Mex guitar, the Last Bandoleros breathe hip new life into Jose Feliciano’s Spanglish holiday staple. Diego Navaira and Derek James each take a star turn on a solo vocal, but the real gift is when all four guys harmonize — a sound that would make even the angels jealous The video is a lo-fi hoot too, with the band hamming it up and leaving out not milk and cookies for St. Nick, but Coronas and salsa.

Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn, “Christmas Time’s a Coming (And I Know I’m Staying Home)”

Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn turn in a faithful recording of Tex Logan’s “Christmas Time’s a Coming” — with one key edit. Instead of the original lyric promising “I know I’m going home,” the bluegrass power couple vow to hunker down during the pandemic. “And I know I’m staying home,” Washburn sings while Fleck picks and plucks a holiday melody on his banjo. The song has a charitable component too: raising awareness for the humanitarian org Direct Relief.

Tony Trischka, “Christmas Cheer (This Weary Year)”

Banjo great Tony Trischka (he’s Steve Martin’s mentor) will release the Civil War concept album Shall We Hope next month. Admittedly heavy stuff, he tempers the tale with this hopeful holiday track about escaping from the “weary year” of the title. Hits home, doesn’t it? As Trischka’s banjo lays a musical bed, the song’s vocalist, Michael Daves, looks ahead: ” Hopefully by the next we’ll be united with our families back home.” It’s an easy sentiment to get behind.

Anthony D’Amato, “Merry Christmas, I Guess”

Christmas is usually intended to be a peaceful, joyful time, but the horror and chaos of 2020 has made it more of an exhausting afterthought this year. Singer-songwriter Anthony D’Amato nails that feeling in his new song “Merry Christmas, I Guess,” a melancholy indie-folk number that’s perfect for everyone who doesn’t much feel like celebrating. “We’re all just doing our best to make it through this batshit year alive,” D’Amato sings, accompanied by acoustic guitar and piano at first, before expanding to include pedal steel. Beyond celebrating, it’s also a song about the fact that many of us won’t see our loved ones. “It’s just another Christmas on my own,” D’Amato sighs.

Cody Belew, “Hang Your Hat on My Christmas Tree”

Arkansas native Cody Belew dials up the camp for this Nineties–country throwback, which got its big premiere this weekend in the cable-TV movie Dashing in December. Belew chews the Yuletide scenery of the lyrics, diving headfirst into images of eggnog, candy canes, and reindeer. The payoff comes in the come-on chorus, with the Nashville transplant coyly offering his tree for your hat.

Lera Lynn, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”

Nashville singer-songwriter Lera Lynn shows off her marvelous voice on a stunning cover of the standard “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” from her Love One Another EP. Beginning with gentle acoustic guitar, the version takes on more of a country rhythm, piling on plucked bass, tremolo electric guitar, and Lynn’s spine-tingling multi-tracked harmonies. Absolutely gorgeous.

Paul Cardall with Thompson Square, “All I See Is Snow”

Dove-winning composer Paul Cardall gets an assist from Thompson Square on this melancholy ballad — which, if we’re being honest, are the best type of Christmas songs. The tune taps into the loneliness and stress of the season, which feels especially arduous in this epic fail called 2020. But as Cardall says, it’s imperative not to lose faith: “‘All I See Is Snow’ feels like a Covid Christmas song, but the beauty in what we do is to write in hope and encourage people that things will get better.”

Maddie & Tae, “We Need Christmas”

Maddie & Tae sing Christmas classics and offer up a couple of originals on their EP We Need Christmas. The title track of that collection is a stirring ballad about the healing aspects of the season, bolstered by the duo’s pristine harmonies. “Come on December, help us remember,” they sing, practically willing it into existence.


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