It's The Most Challenging Time Of The Year: Finding a Stylistic Direction for All Those Christmas Albums

Mark Ashman/Disney
Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood performs in Magic Kingdom Park at Walt Disney World Resort in Lake Buena Vista, Fla on Nov. 9, 2016.

The weather outside might well be frightful. But if you’re a country recording artist with a Christmas album on the docket, there’s another potentially daunting obstacle to the holiday season: finding a stylistic direction.

The month of December has a familiar set of standards -- from Bing Crosby’s traditional pop title “White Christmas” to the Eagles’ bluesy “Please Come Home for Christmas” to Buck Owens’ twangy “Daddy Looked a Lot Like Santa.” So as country artists invariably approach holiday albums, they’re presented with the same dilemma that vexed Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer: How do you fit in, but still stand out?

“It’s hard because you’ve heard these versions your whole life,” says Kacey Musgraves, whose new album A Very Kacey Christmas draws from a slew of traditional sounds while putting a progressive lyrical spin on a few new songs. “It would’ve been easy to go in and replicate these familiar versions, which are great, but it was important for me and the two guys I produced it with, Kyle Ryan and Misa Arriaga, to come up with our own things and do the work and get creative.”

The issue is even more difficult to navigate because the holiday allows artists to think a little outside the box. Radio hits aren’t the goal with the album, and tastemakers don’t necessarily judge an artist’s direction based on their work in a seasonal package. So artists have the leeway, if they choose, to work in areas they would normally avoid on a standard country album. Thus, Brett Eldredge’s Glow has a big-band sound complete with a full horn section. And Rascal FlattsThe Greatest Gift of All folds some elaborate gospel and R&B stylings into the mix, thanks in part to conductor-arranger Tim Akers, who played keyboards on the band’s hits “Stand” and “What Hurts the Most.”

“We talked to Tim and had him outline some really unique directions for these songs so we don’t [restrict] ourselves to the way a lot of the classics have sounded,” notes guitarist Joe Don Rooney. “Tim would send back these work tapes to us, kind of singing on his piano, and just the work tapes were blowing me away. This stuff is really tricky, and we knew it was going to be a challenge for us. It was some of the most demanding charts I’ve ever come across.”

Sound isn’t the only issue with Christmas records. The origin of the songs is significant — Will the entire album be a reinterpretation of the classics? Or does it include some new material? The topics are important, too: How much do you reference Santa? How religious do you get? Do you stick to love and family? And then there’s the issue of the album’s art. Most present the artist in some form of winter garb. Rascal Flatts went with a simple snowflake design, while Exile’s Wrapped Up in Your Arms for Christmas cover highlighted the “x” in the band’s name as a pair of candy canes.

“Some of these Christmas art themes can be pretty hokey,” says Exile singer-songwriter J.P. Pennington, whose wife, Suzie, designed the cover. “We didn’t want that, and we thought the candy canes and the reds and the greens would be enough to have people know at first glance it’s obviously a Christmas project.”

For some acts, finding a unique space in the holiday marketplace is easier. Home Free, with it’s a cappella format, has a built-in distinction with its new Full of (Even More) Cheer. Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood blended in a handful of duets on Christmas Together, which also presents solo material from both acts. And Reba McEntire’s trademark vocal ornamentation invariably sets her apart. She took an extra step this year by creating a holiday album, My Kind of Christmas, that’s built strictly around the piano/vocal format. Likewise, Chris Young’s It Must Be Christmas has a solid core.

“With my voice on anything, it’s going to sound country,” he says. “From the get-go, I wanted to make something that was going to be a country Christmas record.”

But he allowed the project to veer in different directions. There’s a jazzy tone to a couple of songs, an appearance by R&B vocal act Boyz II Men and a rock-tinged cover of “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home).” Young also wrote a couple of original songs: the romantic ballad “Under the Weather” and the title cut, which manages to encapsulate a bundle of December images that are familiar without feeling clichéd.

“It’s definitely something that’s tough to do,” says Young. “You want to have really well-crafted songs that are going to stand up to these other songs you’ve listened to your whole life.”

Sometimes, it’s finding the rarities that makes the difference. Jennifer NettlesTo Celebrate Christmas applies original treatments to holiday standards, creating a slinky version of “God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen” and a blues-rockin’ “Go Tell It on the Mountain.” But the album features some lesser-known titles, too, including a former Bing Crosby/Rosemary Clooney duet, “Count Your Blessings Instead of Sheep,” and a cover of Christian artist Sandi Patty’s “Merry Christmas With Love.”

“They’re not the ones that we hear over and over and over,” says Nettles. “I did want the album to have a bit of freshness.”

Christmas albums can have a long-term strategic benefit. For starters, because the music is only relevant for about one month out of the year, they can be marketed in short bursts over the course of several years. And they can also help round out an artist’s niche. Such is the case for Eldredge, whose passion for Frank Sinatra was established in-house when he first signed with Warner Music Nashville. Glow is the first place it has been able to surface on his recordings, potentially introducing him to new listeners.

“It’s a mass-appeal sound,” says WMN chief marketing officer Peter Strickland. “Country radio is going to play it, for sure, and so is the AC station. I feel like this is a really good opportunity for Brett to expand his audience because it is a Christmas record.”

So even if the weather outside is indeed frightful, that daunting task of finding the right lane can still pay off with tidings of great joy. Or, at least, a little bit of possibility.


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