This week, we get a holly jolly First Country column, as a plethora of artists have issued holiday music now that the holiday season is near. Among these new projects are Cody Johnson’s first Christmas album, a holiday project from acclaimed singer-songwriter Lori McKenna, and a collaborative project from Brett Young.
Cody Johnson, A Cody Johnson Christmas
Johnson brings a full-tilt country Christmas album on his first holiday release, filling it with acoustic guitars, tasteful harmonica, steel and fiddle across enduring compositions such as Willie Nelson’s “Pretty Paper” and Merle Haggard’s “If We Make It Through December.” Alongside those are a duo of original, Trent Willmon-penned tracks, “Hat Made of Mistletoe” and “Christmas All Year Long,” which zing with plenty of fiddle and piano. Elsewhere, Johnson welcomes his wife Brandi and their two children to join on a rendition of “Silent Night.” Throughout, these timeless melodies also show off Johnson’s warm, conversational singing style at its best. This album is fresh but traditional, a welcome new entry to the canon of great country Christmas albums.
Lori McKenna, Christmas Is Right Here (EP)
Whereas most Christmas albums lean heavily on older holiday classics, five of the six songs included on this album are McKenna originals — a natural state given McKenna’s sterling track record of hits recorded by other artists, including Tim McGraw, Little Big Town, Carrie Underwood, Keith Urban, and The Highwomen.
“Still Christmas in Nashville” pays homage to a city filled with starry-eyed hopefuls. “God bless the city the dreamers built/ It don’t hardly snow, but it sparkles still,” she sings, backed by subtle percussion and somber guitar. “Christmas Without Crying” and the solo-penned “Grateful” find McKenna painting nostalgic holiday scenes with her words, and finding the joy and wistfulness even in moments of sadness. The set, produced by McKenna, Luke Laird and Barry Dean, rounds out with a rendition of the Paul McCartney classic “Wonderful Christmastime.”
Randy Travis, “There’s A New Kid in Town”
“There’s a New Kid in Town,” penned by Keith Whitley, Curly Putman and Don Cook, has been recorded by artists including Alan Jackson, Blake Shelton and Chris Young. Now, Randy Travis and Georgia upstart Drew Parker offer their turn on this classic, which takes an older Randy Travis vocal and pairs it with Parker’s easygoing vocals to great effect. The track accompanies a remastered version of Travis’s 1989 holiday album An Old Time Christmas.
Steve Holy, “A Christmas To Remember”
“Good Morning Beautiful” hitmaker Holy entered a recording studio for the first time in nearly a decade to craft a holiday project filled with classic gems such as “Jingle Bell Rock” and “A Holly Jolly Christmas,” but it’s this original track from writers Sam Hunter and Joe Hunter that stands out. The album’s title track follows a soft groove and timeless melody, which pairs well with Holy’s smooth tenor. The song serves as a timely reminder to make the most of every day.
Josh Abbott Band, Christmas Was
This Texas mainstay band brings their masterful country craftsmanship to the holiday EP, Christmas Was, a mix of originals and enduring classics such as “Silent Night.” “Back when my favorite toy cost a glass of milk and Chips Ahoy/ and the whole world was right for one night,” Abbott sings in the project’s title track, which offers vivid memories of the childhood holiday moments that just get better with each remembrance. Elsewhere on this Marshall Altman-produced project, romance fills the air on the cheeky track “Santa Better Knock.” A joyous, meticulously-crafted effort.
Josh Turner, “Soldier’s Gift”
Turner pays homage to the “Soldier’s Gift” — namely safety and freedom — in the lead track to his first holiday project, King Size Manger. Soft piano plays “Silent Night” leading into this Tom Douglas and Scooter Carusoe-penned track, which Turner’s solid baritone gives an extra dose of gravitas.
Lainey Wilson, “Christmas Cookies”
This George Strait classic retains its Western Swing vibe and soft shuffle, while “Things a Man Oughta Know” hitmaker Wilson sounds great here. Her charismatic personality shines and she shows off an enviable vocal range, veering from soft and velvety to full-tilt belting in all the right places.
Gabby Barrett, “Silent Night”
Barrett released this holiday classic via Apple Music. Here, her powerful, soulful voice dips and soars, sweeping into airy soprano notes against a soft guitar backing that keeps her versatile voice—and the song’s message—front and center.
Brett Young, Brett Young & Friends Sing the Christmas Classics
Brett Young welcomes a host of musical pals here to join in the holiday fun. Darius Rucker and Young join forces on a jazzy rendition of the Brenda Lee classic “Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree.” Colbie Caillat offers a sweetly complementary vocal on “White Christmas,” while Maddie & Tae bring angelic harmonies to “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!” Throughout, Young sounds relaxed and stately on these renderings of classic hits.
Skip Ewing, Christmas
Singer-songwriter Skip Ewing, known for penning hits including Diamond Rio’s “I Believe” and Brian White’s “I’m Not Supposed to Love You Anymore,” turns his writing talents to holiday music on this seven-track project. The album also includes the religious tale “Just a Kid,” an Ewing-penned track Kenny Chesney included on his 2003 holiday album All I Want For Christmas Is a Real Good Tan. Elsewhere on this Kyle Lehning-produced project, Ewing blends “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” with “America The Beautiful” to stunning effect on “I’ll Be Home (An American Christmas).” He also showcases his romantic side on the piano and horn-filled “Mister Snowman.”