The south may still be saddled with the endless dew of a soggy summer, but it’s never too early to talk Christmas — humidity built the snowman, as John Prine once sang, after all. And Prine — along with Robert Ellis, Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Dwight Yoakam, Emmylou Harris, the Band, Nikki Lane, Corb Lund and more — is just one of the heavyweights to contribute a holiday tune to An Americana Christmas, due out October 14th via New West.
While a bulk of the songs are previously recorded classics, like Dylan’s “Must Be Santa” and Cash’s “The Gifts They Gave,” Ellis, Lund and Lane all spun original numbers for this veritable lexicon of folk-country Christmas tunes. Lane’s sassy “Falalaalove Ya” is a raspy ode to an eternal season of mistletoe, while Lund’s “Just Me and These Ponies” is a twang-orchestral bummer about a lonesome cowboy who plays a smart foil to Santa and his reindeers. And Ellis, whose recent LP, The Lights From the Chemical Plant, is one of Rolling Stone Country’s 26 Albums of 2014 You Probably Didn’t But Really Should Hear, gives his spin on Willie Nelson’s “Pretty Paper.” It’s about the joys of the beloved holiday – which, with its green trees and wrapping (rolling?) paper, is also known as “all year” to the Red Headed Stranger.
Premiering exclusively on Rolling Stone Country, Ellis’s track adds a sweet, smooth shuffle to the song first released by Roy Orbison in 1963. “I chose to cut ‘Pretty Paper’ because I love Willie’s version and it’s a lesser-known Christmas tune with a little more depth to it than a story about reindeer — no offense to the reindeer,” Ellis says. “I also thought the song could get by with a more minimal arrangement for my version, which is why we only used one synth, a drum machine and vocals and piano. The lyrics are strong enough that it didn’t feel like it needed a whole lot.”
Though Ellis doesn’t currently have any plans for Christmas – he might visit family back in Texas and spend some time in San Juan — he’s certainly been busy of late. Nominated for several Americana Honors & Awards titles, including Album of the Year, he’ll head to Nashville this week to play a stream of AmericanaFest events. The highlight just may be a revival of his Whiskey Wednesdays at Robert’s Western World (transforming it, naturally, into Robert Ellis’, uh, Western World) with Hayes Carll and Caitlin Rose. He also produced Whiskey Shivers’ upcoming self-titled EP and lent his virtuosic guitar-stylings to up-and-comer Cale Tyson’s EP Cheater’s Wine, out October 28th. And he recently made the move from Nashville to New York City, a welcome change for the singer with a penchant for dancing to Macklemore at night clubs.
“New York City is great,” Ellis says. “I’ve been writing a ton and partying more. I take a notepad out when I ride the subway or ferry and work on new songs. It’s been a really inspiring place to be.”
Known for a style that fuses George Jones with avant-garde jazz and folk icons like Paul Simon – and, of course, Willie Nelson – Ellis hasn’t lost touch with his southern side even though he’s moved up east. “I’m still not sure how much irony is at play,” he adds, “but I get really excited lately when Florida George Line’s ‘Cruise’ comes on the radio.”
Here’s the artists and track listing for An Americana Christmas:
Luther Dickinson – “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”
John Prine – “Everything Is Cool”
Robert Ellis – “Pretty Paper”
Emmylou Harris – “The First Noel”
Johnny Cash – “The Gifts They Gave”
Corb Lund – “Just Me and These Ponies (For Christmas This Year)”
Dwight Yoakam – “Run Run Rudolph”
Bob Dylan – “Must Be Santa”
Valerie June – “Winter Wonderland”
Ronnie Fauss – “Everybody Deserves a Merry Christmas”
Max Gomez – “Season of My Memory”
Ben Keith w/ Neil & Pegi Young – “Les Trois Cloches”
The Common Linnets – “At Christmas Time”
Nikki Lane – “Falalaalove Ya”
Old 97’s – “Here It Is Christmas Time”
The Band – “Christmas Must Be Tonight”