Back in the near-summer heat of May, some New York City residents might have done a double-take when they saw a tall man walking the city streets, dressed in a velvet tuxedo, velvet shoes and a bowtie. But for Warner Music Nashville artist Brett Eldredge, it was all part of getting into the holiday spirit as he entered a New York studio to record his second holiday album, Mr. Christmas, accompanied by a big band orchestra.
“Every day I would put on a different tux and head to the studio,” Eldredge tells Billboard. “It just kind of puts me in that space.”
“To watch Brett walk into the studio, straight into the vocal booth — we had to be COVID tested so we were a little behind — we walked in right at 11, counted off and he sang two passes and we got the take,” recalls Eldredge’s manager, Q Prime South’s John Peets. “The whole horn section, they’re Paul Simon’s guys. They do the Billy Joel stuff, the Rod Stewart songbook stuff…Just to watch those very seasoned musicians go, ‘This guy is a baller,’ it’s so good.”
For Eldredge, who calls Christmas music “such a part of who I am, and a passion for me” it’s simply another affirmation of the Sinatra-influenced brand of big band holiday music he’s been developing alongside his country music career since he began performing small invite-only shows of around 100 attendees in tiny Nashville venues in 2014. By 2016, Eldredge had released his first holiday album, Glow.
“I thought we could build this brand out to people, because there weren’t a lot of people doing it,” Peets says. “He does this kind of thing that [Michael] Bublé can do.”
Eldredge and a number of other country artists, including Martina McBride and Vince Gill (with wife Amy Grant), have built holiday franchises that not only bring holiday music, but annual tours and other branding opportunities that make it a truly jolly time of year.
Taking the Holiday Magic on the Road
Christmas music, with themes that typically center on family and the religious aspects of the holiday season, has a well-established history within country music, with nearly every major country artist releasing holiday music at some point. Recordings such as Gene Autry’s 1949 rendering of “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” Brenda Lee’s 1958 hit “Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree” and Buck Owens’s “Santa Looked a Lot Like Daddy” have long been holiday standards, while other country artists have offered their own contributions to the country-Christmas canon — including Willie Nelson’s “Pretty Paper,” Merle Haggard’s “If We Make It Through December,” Martina McBride’s version of “O Holy Night,” George Strait’s “Christmas Cookies,” Dolly Parton’s “Hard Candy Christmas,” and Alan Jackson’s “Let It Be Christmas.”
Last year, Carrie Underwood released her first holiday album, My Gift, accompanied by an HBO Max Christmas special, while 2021 saw a slate of holiday music released from Cody Johnson, Brett Young, Josh Turner, Mitchell Tenpenny, Josh Abbott Band, Pistol Annies, Steve Wariner and more.
The late Kenny Rogers led an annual Christmas tour for over three decades, while artists including Trace Adkins, LeAnn Rimes, Wynonna, Kacey Musgraves and numerous others have embarked on holiday tours to support Christmas projects. Since their first two holiday Christmas at the Ryman shows in 2008, Vince Gill and Amy Grant have built their holiday run of concerts into a beloved Nashville tradition, including 12 shows this year. Additionally, numerous country artists have taken part in the Country Music Association’s annual CMA Country Christmas special since it launched in 2010.
In 1998, Martina McBride released her first album, White Christmas, and followed with It’s The Holiday Season in 2018.
“My goal was to make a really classic-sounding Christmas album, something that could stand the test of time,” the four-time CMA female vocalist of the year winner tells Billboard of crafting White Christmas. “We went for that big orchestra, traditional sound. I feel like that’s the reason it’s been around for so long.”
McBride has since made holiday concerts a bedrock of her yearly tour plans, and is in the midst of the 11th year of her The Joy of Christmas tour, which launched Nov. 26 in Illinois and wraps Dec. 19 in Milwaukee. Over the years, McBride and her team have brought her brand of holiday music to arenas, theaters and performing arts centers, and they’ve witnessed how a timeless approach to holiday albums, as well as an authentic passion for holiday music, can develop a full-fledged holiday music brand that keeps fans returning year after year.
WME agent Aaron Tannenbaum says McBride’s holiday shows are a priority in terms of strategizing which touring markets McBride will play during the year.
“Oftentimes we’ll respectfully pass on opportunities in certain markets if we have them prioritized as Christmas tour markets,” says Tannenbaum, who also booked shows for McBride during his previous time at CAA. “The great thing about Martina, her fanbase and the country genre is that generally speaking… provided it is a good touring market, it typically overindexes as a Christmas tour, at least for Martina. Also, not wanting to oversaturate places that we’ve already played the Christmas tour, we try to give markets enough time to reboot before we bring another show. It’s a high-performing tour, and we have a blast booking it every year.”
As with every team putting a show on the road this year, McBride’s team had to navigate ever-changing COVID-19 regulations in various markets.
“Everything was impacted a bit,” says Fusion Music/Red Light Management’s Chris Ferren, who co-manages McBride alongside Fusion Music managing partner and Red Light Management manager Daniel Miller. “We plan holiday tours about a year in advance. This time last year, no one knew what to expect. From January until very recently, we were all watching what was happening in the local marketplaces. Aaron would send regular updates on what each market’s local government was doing with COVID and what their guidelines were. This year, it took longer to put the tour together, but otherwise it is the same great show.”
With the release of the deluxe version of his Glow album in 2018, Eldredge embarked on his Glow Live Tour. This year, it returns for a nine-show run that extends through Dec. 18, and included two sold-out concerts at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium. It also includes stops at The Chicago Theater and NYC’s Beacon Theatre. The production is kept simple: the band musicians have music stands with Eldredge’s initials on them, while a large, tastefully decorated Christmas tree, a park benches and street lamps serve further enhance the set’s classy production. “I don’t want anything to take away from the magic in the music,” Eldredge says.
McBride has a similar focus for this year’s The Joy of Christmas concert production. She recalls her initial holiday tour as “more of a theatrical production. It was in arenas, so it was a bigger stage. We had actors who danced and little vignettes as part of the show.” That version of the show was on the road for approximately five years, before they took a break and brought it back with a simpler production.
“It’s a storyteller’s show,” says Miller of McBride’s holiday concert. “She does lighter holiday songs but then also more reverent songs. She adds so many personal stories from her childhood Christmases and her family that it adds this really wonderful narrative that I don’t think anyone else does in this format.”
For Peets, planning holiday tours comes with an added layer of risk: “It’s a big band and when you see big bands — at least for me — you just think, ‘It’s a lot of overhead, trying to get everybody paid and move them around and rehearsing it. There’s different production elements — you can’t amortize stuff that you tour with in the summer into the Christmas stuff, and by definition, you can only do it for so long in the calendar year.’ But it immediately seemed like it had value.”
As Eldredge’s holiday tours continue to build, Peets says that will require strategic choices. “As it gets bigger, the next thing would be that you go to arenas,” he says. “But the question is, should this kind of show be in arenas, because of what the audience experience would be? I’m not sure bigger means better there. Do you sit down in New York for three or four days, or do you do one arena show and get more markets in? That’ll be the next kind of chess game to look at. How do you cover more markets if there’s demand? The cost could be that some audience experience becomes a little diluted when it’s that big.”
There are also hopes to expand the holiday tours internationally. “I would love to get to London and Berlin, because his propensity to want to go to Europe is higher than most in the country field,” Peets says. “But again, you’re working with a smaller window and a lot of overhead, so you have to be as efficient as you can.”
In addition to a music career spanning three decades, McBride has made inroads in the cooking world, releasing two cookbooks, and launching a Food Network show in 2018. She and her team kept the holiday branding in mind this year, also releasing a Martina McBride’s Holiday Cookbook magazine, filled with an array of holiday-ready appetizers, main dishes and desserts.
“We released the [It’s the Holiday Season] album, the cookbook and announced the television show, all leading into the Christmas tour. It created this holiday hype,” Ferren says. “This year we released White Christmas on vinyl for the first time. There’s always bundling that brand together as part of that strategy. We are able to loop in a release or anything in the marketplace to grow that side of the lifestyle brand, because Martina is such a known name within the holiday season and lifestyle branding.” During previous The Joy of Christmas tours, that holiday branding extended to the VIP experience (which was nixed this year due to COVID precautions), which offered fans a chance to sample holiday recipes included in McBride’s cookbooks.
Eldredge recently appeared on ABC’s The Wonderful World of Disney: Magical Holiday Celebration, and joined Kelly Clarkson’s “When Christmas Comes Around” holiday special. According to both Eldredge and Peets, it’s possible Eldredge could lead his own prime time holiday special (in 2016, Eldredge performed a Vegas holiday concert that aired via Direct TV and U-verse).
“I want to do my own Christmas special when the time is right,” Eldredge says. “I’ve been working on some movie script ideas. There’s nothing planned — I’ve never shared them with anybody — but I want to continue bringing good stories to shine some light in this world.”
“We’ll always try to bring something new in the fourth quarter from Brett,” Peets says. “It won’t be a new Christmas record every year, but maybe a Christmas special or other content to elevate the brand every fourth quarter.”
Eldredge looks to 95-year-old crooner Tony Bennett as an example of the career longevity holiday music can offer. “A few years ago, I was in a dressing room next to Tony for the Rockefeller Center tree lighting,” Eldredge recalls. “I thought, ‘He’s 60 years older than me and still doing Christmas music.’ I hope to do 10 more Christmas albums. I would love to do even 40 more years of this. I like stepping into that role as a guy who can deliver joy, because it also gives me great purpose. I just want to brighten somebody’s day.”