A dogged pandemic is entering its second holiday season, creating logistical dramas for many families and supply-chain issues that will likely affect the volume of packages under some trees.
But COVID-19 seems to have amped up the spirit in country music for the 2021 yuletide season. At least a dozen acts released new Christmas albums or EPs, an unusually large volume influenced by a simple reality: With concert schedules zeroed out for much of ’20 and ’21, artists had more time available, which naturally meant more freedom to write and record songs.
Brett Young realized the pandemic created space for holiday recordings too late to make it for 2020, but he compensated for that in 2021 by cutting a more elaborate collaborative project, Brett Young & Friends Sing the Christmas Classics, featuring Colbie Caillat, Darius Rucker and Maddie & Tae.
“It just kind of snowballed,” says Young.
Josh Turner, Mitchell Tenpenny and Brett Eldredge all composed original songs for their 2021 projects, in part, because COVID-19 allowed them the space. Yet another artist, Wyoming-based Skip Ewing, was able to schedule three three-hour sessions on a single day to cut his new project with a band that almost exactly matched the studio players he used on his last album.
“We wanted eight or nine people to align on the same day, including our engineer, [producer] Kyle [Lehning] and myself,” says Ewing. “There’s a lot of scheduling involved. If I had a show at a performing arts center in New York or Boston or something like that, I can’t pull out of that show just to go cut some songs. And yet to me, it’s vital to have the right people. Had we been touring, it may not have worked out.”
Scheduling was likewise a boon to Turner, whose two prior albums were successful concept projects — the gospel release I Serve a Savior and a covers album, Country State of Mind. He saw the Christmas release, King Size Manger, as a logical follow-up, and the pandemic gave him a full year to write songs, as well as develop unique ideas for seasonal classics: “Angels We Have Heard On High” mimics the swagger of The Mavericks without the horns or Latin percussion, while “Joy to the World” alters one lyric with a wink and a nod: “And heaven and nature swing.”
“Not being able to tour allowed me the freedom and the opportunity and the time to focus on writing for the Christmas record,” he says. “And [my wife] Jennifer knew that that was a priority for me, so she was pretty lenient and careful about what she asked of me during that time.”
Josh Abbott also flew in to Nashville from Texas to cut a Christmas EP, Christmas Was, in June. The project includes two previously unreleased songs — the title track and “Santa Better Knock,” both written by Shane McAnally (“Fancy Like,” “Half of My Hometown”) and Josh Osborne (“Never Wanted To Be That Girl,” “I Was on a Boat”) — and is one of at least three new packages Abbott has issued since the pandemic began.
“I have probably recorded more in the past 18 months than I ever have in an 18-month period,” says Abbott.
The Christmas pile-on includes Pistol Annies’ Hell of a Holiday, Steve Wariner’s Feels Like Christmas Time, Lori McKenna’s Christmas Is Right Here, A Very Timmy Brown Christmas, Lucas Hoge’s 12.25 and A Cody Johnson Christmas, an album that sort of defies the COVID trend.
Johnson did not use downtime to make his album — in fact, he wedged it into his schedule only after he had recorded a double album, shot the documentary Dear Rodeo: The Cody Johnson Story and relaunched his tour schedule. For the first time, he entrusted producer Trent Willmon to cut the tracks without him.
“I just literally didn’t have time to be there,” says Johnson. “I told Trent, ‘Let’s discuss the keys that I want to sing in. Let’s discuss the feel and the vibe that, in my opinion, they should have, and then go produce the album.’ When I got to just show up and sing, it was so much fun and it was just like, ‘Ok, boys, 10 tracks. There you go. It’s done.'”
But the pandemic did impact the album’s tone. The vast majority of the songs address family: from the nativity to the intimacy of the season to Merle Haggard’s “If We Make It Through December” and Willie Nelson’s “Pretty Paper,” material that examines men with family — or lack-of-family — problems. That reflects Johnson’s experience during the first COVID-era Christmas.
“What we learned is ‘Turn the TV off, don’t worry about the records, don’t worry about radio placements, quit work, just turn it all off and focus on the good things,’ ” he says. “My wife and I aren’t going to be this young together forever. My parents aren’t always going to be around — [or] my grandparents. That’s what Christmas for me has turned into is that real focus on the things that really matter.”
Turner similarly has seen his work/family balance altered since March 2020.
“For the last 20 years, every time I would get home from a trip, I just could not sit still,” he says. “I was always antsy. I was always ready to go somewhere, whether I was going out to eat or just walking around Target with no good reason to be there. During the pandemic, one of the best things that came out of that was that it kind of quelled that restless spirit in me, where I just really kind of discovered a peace and contentment that I don’t think I’ve had in the last 20 years.”
Tenpenny’s album, an expansion on a previous Christmas EP, was already scheduled, though it benefited from that same low-key reality. Two of the new songs arrived because he was bored during downtime in July, but he generated songs that are generally upbeat in spirit.
“I wanted to write it a little differently,” he says. “I call it ‘sexy Christmas.’ It’s just having a little fun, stuff you can turn on and not take so seriously. A lot of Christmas music is really serious, for some reason. I just wanted it to be something very lighthearted and fun.”
Though tragic in the big picture, the pandemic allowed Tenpenny to give the project his full attention.
“Christmas was important to me,” he says. “A lot of artists wait a long time, but I started pretty early. I love the record. I feel like we got some timeless stuff there that can last for a good while.”
While the country Christmas albums help create the sense of a typical, festive holiday, they arrive at a time when the world is not normal. Risks remain, particularly for the unvaccinated, and Ewing hopes people don’t allow pandemic fatigue to override caution.
“There are a lot of things in our human existence that we know are dangerous, that we work to protect ourselves from, and this one happens to be a high percentage of deadly,” he says. “I don’t take that lightly anytime.”
This article first appeared in the Billboard Country Update newsletter, which features the latest airplay, sales and streaming charts along with compelling analysis of market trends and conditions. All for free. Click here to subscribe.