Jennifer Nettles on Seeing Christmas Through Her Son's Eyes & Her Debut Solo Holiday Album

 Andrew Kautz
Jennifer Nettles

One might think that recording a Christmas album when the temperature is well above 70 degrees might be a little difficult, but according to Jennifer Nettles, when it comes to the holidays, it's an all-year thing.

"The truth is that having done the CMA Country Christmas show seven years in a row, we always have to start for that in July or August," says the singer, who has just released her first solo Yuletide album, To Celebrate Christmas, on Big Machine Records. It seems that 2016 is even more holiday oriented than usual. "This year, doing the second Dolly movie, we shot it in July in Atlanta when it was burning up, but it was set at Christmastime," she says of Christmas of Many Colors: Circle of Love, which airs Wednesday (Nov. 30) on NBC. "Anything in the entertainment industry that has do with the holidays, you are accustomed to it being the hottest time of year. So I'm used to it by now -- it's the most wonderful time of year all year."

The powerhouse female vocalist stresses that once she became a mother to son Magnus, her focus on the Christmas season changed. "As with most things, whenever you have a child, you get to see the world through their eyes, and with me -- his eyes," she tells Billboard. "Where things used to be about you, it becomes about them, and it has become about him. That is fun for me. This year, he's going to be almost four, and he's just beginning to recognize who Santa Claus is from a picture. I don't know how much he puts together as far as presents and when they come. I think that's something that he's going to do for the first time this year, so that's going to be exciting."

Nettles knows as her son grows up, there will be technological advancements that will make his Christmas celebrations a lot different. But with the recent trend of bringing back Atari and Super Nintendo video games, a lot of older presents from the past will be new ones in the future. "Things have a way of coming back around as vintage retro," she muses. "I can think of one example immediately: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles! They weren't popular when I was a little girl, but they were popular when my brother and sister were very small. I remember them when they were coming out, and my brother was so into them at the time. Now, they're back around again. Everything old is new again, and I do think that's the joy of being a parent, and the challenge, as well. They can make the simple things the most beautiful, and they can also make the simple things so very hard – like going to the grocery store. But the way that they will see something in the way that the wind blows or the trees is the most wondrous and exciting. It's a beautiful and rich experience, for sure."

One of the To Celebrate Christmas standouts comes via the joyous feel of the standard "Go Tell It On The Mountain," which features some stellar harmonies from The McCrary Sisters, of whom she's a fan. "I had the pleasure of working with them for what I believe was the first time when I did the Kris Kristofferson tribute. When Julian Raymond and I were talking about the vibe for this, he had them on his mind, and I was absolutely blown away by their performance."

There are a couple of other guests on the album Nettles is excited about. "Idina Menzel and I performed 'Little Drummer Boy,' which was great. I love her voice and have been a fan for a long time. Andra Day and I do 'God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,' which is super jazzy. It's based on an arrangement that she had previously done on one of her recordings. When I heard it, I knew I wanted to do that. I reached out to her, and that was one of the ones she brought up. To me, both of those are standouts on the record," she says.

Another aspect of the promotion of the album is a Christmas mini-tour, which Nettles is thrilled about. "The holidays are always busy, but with having an album out this year, it felt like it was the right time to go out and do a few shows. One of them which I am super excited about is being with the Nashville Symphony. It's going to be really fun to hear the music with all of those players playing on it. To be able to get out and celebrate with the fans will be a lot of fun for me."

Playing the mother of Dolly Parton in last year's TV movie Coat of Many Colors has also been rewarding for Nettles, who again appears as Avie Lee Parton in this season's Christmas of Many Colors: Circle of Love. The singer says it has allowed her to gain some insight into what makes Parton tick. "I think that we all knew a bit of Dolly's story, but getting to play this role, I learned a lot more detail," she admitted. "I learned of the role that her Uncle Bill played in helping fulfill her dreams. You watch how musical her family was, and how they supported her, and the relationship that she and her mom had. Those kinds of intimate details are something we don't know when you hear about her growing up in Appalachia, and having eleven brothers and sisters, but we get much more detail and more of that narrative."

She recorded the title track of the movie for the album, and also included Kenny Loggins' classic "Celebrate Me Home," which she says is one song that she strongly identifies with. "That song is my favorite of the non-traditional Christmas songs. I've been a traveling musician in my life now for longer than I haven't. For me to come home for the holidays has such a resonance and a special significance. So that song is special to me, and in terms of the more spiritual songs, I love 'O' Holy Night.' That's one of my favorites, which we tried to give a little bit of an Otis Redding-sort of treatment."

Dolly Parton's Christmas of Many Colors: Circle of Love airs Nov. 30 at 9 p.m. ET on NBC.


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