Latin Grammys 2018

Christmas Comes Early For a Multitude Of Country Stars

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Kacey Musgraves performs during the 49th annual CMA Awards on November 4, 2015.

Garth Brooks & Trisha Yearwood, Rascal Flatts, Kacey Musgraves, Brett Eldredge Sport New Holiday Albums

Merry Christmas!

If it feels a little early to get that kind of greeting, take heart — a bundle of country artists have already been mired in the holiday for months. Kacey MusgravesA Very Kacey Christmas, Loretta Lynn’s White Christmas Blue, Reba McEntire’s My Kind of Christmas and Garth Brooks & Trisha Yearwood’s Christmas Together are all designed to enhance the Yuletide experience for music fans.

But the artists themselves need good imaginations to make the holiday come to life, since much of the work — including recording, marketing and even writing Christmas songs — typically takes place in the spring and summer. That was certainly true for Chris Young, who wrote a handful of new songs for It Must Be Christmas in March.

“We recorded a lot of the record in July when we were having record temps in Tennessee, 100-plus degrees,” he says. “So we cranked up the AC in the studio and put up some lights and decorations and wore sweaters while we recorded to get in the Christmas spirit. But the second we left the studio, it was right back to T-shirts.”

That’s hardly a new development. The sleigh bells in 
Gene Autry’s “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer” may suggest snowstorms and Santa Claus, but Autry recorded it during the heat of June — in Los Angeles — when swimsuits and sunglasses were much more apropos. Similarly, Elvis Presley’s “Blue Christmas” (September 1957), Buck Owens’ “Santa Looked a Lot Like Daddy” (June 1965), Bobby Helms’ “Jingle Bell Rock” (October 1957) and Brenda Lee’s 
“Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” (October 1958) were recorded at a time of year that’s not exactly conducive to the holiday spirit.

Producer Owen Bradley rather famously set up a Christmas tree in the studio to get Lee, who was 14 when she cut her holiday staple, in the mood. It’s a tradition that many artists uphold.

“It was interesting to be sweating going into the studio,” says Musgraves, who recorded her album in June and July. “Once I got in there, we had Christmas lights and cider, and every musician had their own stocking with their name on it.”

She even out together a snowflake station, a diversion that encouraged a little extra creativity.

“We had a little side table set up with paper and scissors to cut your own snowflake,” she explains. “It kind of turned into a thing, so it was pretty festive, actually.”

The calendar dictates the out-of-season artifice. The window for marketing a Christmas project is just a few weeks, so the setup is crucial. The initial planning for Brett Eldredge’s new Christmas project, Glow, for example, took place in the fourth quarter of 2015, but since his schedule was already packed with a tour and promotion of his then-new album, Illinois, work on the holiday release didn’t begin in earnest until spring 2016. By then, it was already imperative to have some music in the works.

“If you look at the retail landscape, they want to know about these releases fairly early,” says Warner Music Nashville chief marketing officer Peter Strickland. “So when you’re talking to any of your partners — whether it be digital download partners, streaming partners or physical-partners — about the holiday product you’ll have in the fourth quarter, that all kind of starts in July.”

Which creates an awkward scenario. As Exile worked on its new release, Wrapped Up in Your Arms for Christmas, during 2015, Lexington, Ky.-based vocalists J.P. Pennington and Les Taylor made several trips to Nashville to record with the rest of the band members, who live in Tennessee. Plenty of their fellow road passengers were taking summer vacations, and it became a challenge to get in the right head space to sing “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” or “The Little Drummer Boy.”

“It was a discussion that we had more than once,” concedes Pennington. “It was like, ‘Man, this is really weird.’ But it was kind of a nice diversion.”

And the initial oddity often disappears once the actual recording work begins. Rascal Flatts went right from a spring residency at the Hard Rock in Las Vegas to the studio in Jay DeMarcus’ basement to cut The Greatest Gift of All. The weather outside was hardly frightful — “It kind of made us feel like, I guess, what folks who celebrate Christmas in the islands do,” quips guitarist Joe Don Rooney — but they cranked the air conditioning and then cranked the tunes.

“Once we started recording this thing, the tracks just breathed the spirit of Christmas into all of us,” he says. “I think Gary [LeVox] really felt the spirit, and he sang the dog out of these songs.”

Jennifer Nettles can relate. Seven years into her gig as host of ABC’s CMA Country Christmas, which annually shoots in early November, she has become familiar with making holiday decisions during a cycle when the three wise men and snowmen aren’t really top of mind. When it became clear early in 2016 that she would be appearing in the Dolly Parton TV movie Christmas of Many Colors — Circle of Love, she decided the timing was right for a holiday album. They filmed the special in July in Atlanta, and she recorded the album’s vocals in August in New York. It wasn’t hard to get in the right frame of mind.

“It’s basically been Christmas now for several months already,” she says with a laugh.

When she and Sugarland partner Kristian Bush cut a holiday album in 2009, they decked the studio with the figurative boughs of holly. This time around, that kind of visual crutch was unnecessary to feel the mood.

“The music itself does that,” says Nettles. “Music is wonderful at that anyway. It takes us to a certain place, it reminds us of a certain time, and suddenly we are transported just by hearing it.”

Yearwood shared that experience. As she and Brooks fit Christmas recording dates between tour stops this summer, she found herself getting psyched for December during tanning season.

“Our society has moved up the holiday so much shopping-wise that it gets here early anyway,” she reasons. “I’m one of those people who doesn’t mind that, just because I love the season so much.”

Still, there’s some imagination required to make the campaign behind a Christmas album work. Even beyond the music, the album cover needs to match the season, which might be the biggest challenge during the summer. Yearwood and Brooks struggled to find sweaters and stocking caps for their photo shoot, and when they did, they were required to wear them on the front porch in July.

“Garth and I look cold, but it was soooo warm outside,” she remembers. “We were channeling our inner winter.”

Sweating for Santa. And helping country fans have a very merry Christmas when the season is right.