Fifty-two years after it first aired on network TV, CBS telecast the animated Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer twice this Christmas season.
Even with its now wobbly audio track, the special clearly still speaks to Americans — kids love it because the animation is fun, and adults continue to appreciate its message. The two lead characters — Rudolph, with his scarlet honker, and Herbie the elf, who would rather be a dentist — learn through tough experience that it’s usually better to embrace your uniqueness than to conform to a societal suit that doesn’t fit quite right.
It’s a theme that pops up repeatedly in the art of Kacey Musgraves, most notably in “Follow Your Arrow,” the Country Music Association’s song of the year in 2014. Appropriately, Musgraves covered “Rudolph” on her new holiday album, A Very Kacey Christmas. Meanwhile, a track that Mercury serviced to radio — a Leon Bridges collaboration, “Present Without a Bow,” released via PlayMPE on Sept. 20 — obliquely touches on another theme that’s central to one of the Red-Nosed TV scenes: the Island of Misfit Toys.
The toys, of course, are castaways, allegedly unwanted because they’re abnormal: a pistol that shoots jelly, a cowboy that rides an ostrich and a Charlie-in-the-box. “A toy is never truly happy,” the island’s King Moonraiser says, “until it is loved by a child.” Musgraves’ “Present Without a Bow” similarly explores that sad prospect of being left alone during the holidays, though there’s something about its almost-cheerful chorus and sprite string-section riffs — provided by three members of The Time Jumpers: Joe Spivey, Kenny Sears and Larry Franklin — that cleverly blends joy and melancholy.
“For me, it was just about finding the right combination of sad and happy,” says Musgraves. “I love those songs that make me a little confused. It’s like, ‘Is this happy or sad?’ ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas’ does that to me a lot. It’s like a punch to the gut, but you’re smiling about it.”
The combination of Musgraves and Bridges similarly mixes artists who draw from two different genres, though they share a Texas heritage and both have their roots in the same decade that brought Rudolph to the small screen. Musgraves has cited Glen Campbell and Marty Robbins among her trad-country influences, while Bridges’ soul performances have been favorably compared to Sam Cooke and Otis Redding.
Musgraves and Bridges met in 2015 and remained in touch. Meanwhile, one of her “Follow Your Arrow” co-producers — songwriter Luke Laird (“Head Over Boots,” “Livin’ the Dream”) — took a meeting in the spring at Mick Management in New York, where one of the Mick reps asked Laird if he thought Musgraves and Bridges might be able to work together. After a series of texts, Bridges and his guitarist, Austin Jenkins, flew to Nashville in May for a four-way writing session.
Just a few days prior, Musgraves had a dream that provided the direction for that co-write.
“Somebody said to me in the dream, ‘Me without you is like a present without a bow,’ ” she remembers. “When an idea pops up in a dream like that, you have to jump up and write it down or it’s going to be gone forever if you go back to sleep. So I rolled over and wrote it down.”
Given the title in advance, Laird went into his Creative Nation offices early to work on musical ideas, and he had enough for a foundation before everyone else showed up that day.
“Musically, I tried to come up with a progression that felt fairly classic, but tried not to be retro,” he says, “something that made me feel good.”
They started on the chorus first, as Laird recalls, and supported that “present without a bow” idea with a series of images that are — akin to the abandoned objects on the Island of Misfit Toys — all askew: standing alone under the mistletoe, a “Silent Night” that doesn’t sound quite right and a candy cane that’s missing its stripes.
“We had a lot of fun coming up with this list of things, you know: a toy train without a track, or a light without a twinkle, or a tree without a star,” she says, rattling off a few that didn’t make the final cut. “It was all these classic things that we all appreciate about the season that would be so wrong if they weren’t what they were.”
“A lot of that lyrically has got Kacey’s stamp all over it,” says Laird. “She’s very profound when it comes to that kind of writing.”
The audio glue for those words owes much to Bridges.
“Leon has an interesting way of just throwing a melody out when you’re writing that’s super-intrinsic to what he does stylistically,” says Musgraves. “It sounds so good. So we found a direction. It was kind of a familiar, classic direction, but we wanted to keep it young and conversational.”
While the song was intended as a Musgraves solo piece, both artists sang on the demo, and before the summer was out, she asked Bridges to come back and do the second verse, which transitions from Christmas to New Year’s, for the final version.
“His voice is like velvet,” says Musgraves. “I mean, every take we were just like dying in the control room. It was very hard to pick exactly which take we wanted, because they were all great.”
Prior to his return, the primary session was festive, even though it was conducted in the heat of a Nashville summer. Musgraves and her co-producers, multi-instrumentalists Misa Arriaga and Kyle Ryan, worked up an arrangement in advance for the musicians, who were put in the spirit with holiday food and decorations. “It was so cute with the garland all up and the lights and the tree,” says Musgraves.
Mr. Jimmy Rowland transformed the block chords from the demo into a pulsing Wurlitzer vibe that bears a slight resemblance to Paul McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmastime.” Joshua Hedley threw sleigh bells into the mix, too. But the basic blocks of the rhythm section — Fred Eltringham’s spacious drum work and Adam Keafer’s stuttered basslines — give it a soulful backbone that works in any month of the year.
“I tried to pull up a drum groove that I wouldn’t think of doing a Christmas song over it, you know, and then do a Christmas song over it,” says Laird, recounting the demo’s inspiration, which remained intact throughout the song’s journey. “A lot of what adds to that is what her bass player played. They just did a really good job at keeping it simple.”
Still, Musgraves — who sang most, if not all, of her final vocal live with the studio band — freely admits the song is a challenge for her.
“It’s higher and more intense than what I usually sing,” she says. “You’ve really got to mean it when you’re singing this song, so in that way, I kind of ?f—ed myself because I’m going to have to keep singing it.”
“Present Without a Bow” follows the trajectory Musgraves has set for her career. It embraces her uniqueness in the same way that Rudolph came to accept his red nose and Herbie began to thrive when he set up shop as a dentist. In a season where programmers are more willing to throw out the rule book, it has found a holiday home at a number of stations — WDSY Pittsburgh; WIVK Knoxville, Tenn.; and WYRK Buffalo, N.Y., to name a few. If all goes well, “Present” could become a gift that keeps on giving, returning every year just as Rudolph re-emerges on TV each holiday season.
“I feel like it’s something that you’d be listening to while you’re shopping at the mall during Christmas,” she says. “I’m hoping that this is a song that can stick around for a long time.”
This article first appeared in Billboard’s Country Update — sign up here.