Had you asked Texas singer-songwriter Josh Abbott at another point in his life about recording a holiday album, he would not have taken the question seriously.
“I’m not going to say I was a Grinch about it,” he reflects, “but I just had never seen myself doing a Christmas record. Sometimes you just have to admit when you’re wrong, and I was so wrong.”
Supporting his newfound Yule-never-be-sorry stance is “Santa Better Knock,” an unconventional holiday cut that walks a line between festive and irreverent. Its big, wall-of sound-production — overseen by producer Marshall Altman (Aaron Watson, Frankie Ballard) — harkens back to the much heralded Phil Spector’s Christmas Album, and Kris Donegan and Rob McNelley’s old-school guitar tones faintly resemble Chuck Berry’s “Run Rudolph Run.” Chris McHugh’s flagrant snare pops wrap the three-minute romp in a rough-cut, Austin-barroom package.
“I’m actually just so glad they heard through our demo because our demo does not sound like a Josh Abbott song,” says songwriter Shane McAnally (“Half of My Hometown,” “Never Wanted To Be That Girl”). “It doesn’t sound anything like what Marshall did. He made it so cool.”
“Santa Better Knock” oddly rivals “The Twelve Days of Christmas” — not because it involves a countdown, but because it required almost 12 years of Christmases before it saw the light of day. McAnally wrote it in May 2010 with Josh Osborne (“Hard To Forget,” “One Man Band”) and Scott Stepakoff (“She’s Mine,” “Mary Was the Marrying Kind”) in an upstairs office on Music Row.
They had been told that Reba McEntire and Carrie Underwood were considering Christmas projects, and Osborne supplied the cheeky title.
“I had that idea, you know — Santa better knock before he comes down the chimney because we’re going to be getting on the naughty list,” says Osborne.
McAnally was like a kid on Christmas morning over that concept.
“Shane gets so animated and excited when somebody has a cool idea,” notes Stepakoff.
The animation was balanced against a good-natured schooling about the meaning of Christmas.
“What’s funny is Scott’s Jewish,” notes Osborne. “So we had to have a whole talk with him about it. It wasn’t being funny, and it wasn’t belittling his faith. It was more like, ‘Hey, do you want to write a Christmas song? We don’t want to force this on you.’ And he was like, ‘Everybody loves Santa Claus. It’s just a fun song.’ He was a sport about it, but I remember joking around with it like, ‘Let me explain Christmas to you, Scott, in case you don’t know.’ “
They needn’t have worried.
“I knew enough,” counters Stepakoff, recalling how his family invented its own Christmas-like traditions. “Growing up, my mom used to hang dress socks from the fireplace and put PEZ in them and stuff like that.”
They established a tempo loaded with Christmas cheer and stuffed the chorus with twisted versions of holiday images and phrases: “Ho, ho, hold me,” “Mistletoe me,” “Let’s get tangled in the tinsel,” “Two shadows in the Christmas lights.” They also borrowed more classic holiday markers, including chestnuts roasting by the fire and a reference to It’s a Wonderful Life.
In addition, they altered Santa’s proverbial list — “It’s nice to be naughty” — in a line that pretty much sums up the sexy tone.
“It’s kind of a subtle nod to the whole ‘Santa Claus Is Coming to Town’ thing,” says Stepakoff. “I never really thought about how risqué we got with this song. It just sort of felt like the right thing to do. If you’re not going for it, then what are you doing?”
McAnally sang lead when they recorded a demo in June 2010, though that more traditional Christmas version didn’t quite capture the song’s full sauciness.
Neither McEntire nor Underwood bit on “Santa Better Knock.” The writers didn’t receive any specific feedback about it, though that clever “Ho, ho, hold me” line — which isn’t fully clear without a lyric sheet — might be part of the reason.
“If it’s ‘Ho, ho, ho me,’ then you definitely wouldn’t think a woman should,” says McAnally with a laugh.
A Michael Bublé pitch fell flat, too. But when one of Abbott’s associates convinced him to try a Christmas project, he reached out to multiple Nashville publishers and struck gold with SMACKSongs. Two McAnally/Osborne collaborations — “Santa Better Knock” and “Christmas Was,” a nostalgic song co-written with Old Dominion’s Trevor Rosen — landed on Abbott’s five-song EP, named after the latter song.
Abbott cut it with session musicians for the first time instead of his full Josh Abbott Band, though management convinced him to promote it as a JAB product — with the band’s assent — to ensure that the metadata still connected with his fan base.
“Me and my actual band are going to go in the studio next year and record five Christmas songs together, combine them with these and then put that out next year,” says Abbott. “That way, it’ll still be Josh Abbott Band.”
Triple 8 Management’s aptly named Mark Noel decorated Sound Emporium with a Christmas tree, lights and tinsel for three three-hour sessions on June 21, and they tackled “Santa Better Knock” third, nailing it in a scant three takes. Altman added sleigh bell percussion atop McHugh’s barroom drum sound, and keyboardist Tim Lauer tossed tympani into the mix alongside his rock’n’roll organ.
“It feels like Josh Abbott, but it feels like a timeless Christmas song,” says Altman. “I’m a Jewish boy from New York City, and traditionally, the Jews write the best Christmas songs. You know it, I know it — ‘I’ll Be Home for Christmas,’ a Jew wrote that, come on! But I like to think because it’s not part of my socioreligious upbringing that it has to be an amazing song to break through for me in that world. And we heard that song, and I just looked at him like, ‘Well, we’re cutting that.’ “
At a later date, Altman overdubbed background voices on his own, stacking a whole chorus on the bridge that mimics The Jordanians’ vocal blockade in the intro of Brenda Lee’s “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree.”
“Josh gives me a lot of room with the backing vocals, so I just went for what felt right,” says Altman. “I love to sing, but to be on this record, to hear that joy in Josh’s voice in the lead vocal and just the energy from the track, it was a blast. I mean, there’s like 10 of me on there.”
Triple 8 issued “Santa” to terrestrial country radio on Nov. 12. Oddly enough, the formerly Grinch-like Abbott now hopes “Santa” finds a perennial place in the Yuletide lexicon.
“I hope it gets put on Christmas movies and TV shows,” he says, “but at the end of the day, the biggest reward for little, fun projects like this are your family and your friends. I just love the fact that my kids love it.”