Sounds for the Many Moods of Christmas

I started listening to Christmas music a few days before Thanksgiving this year.   Judge me, I don't care.   I just couldn't wait.   I like the same variety in my Christmas pieces as I do during the rest of the year.   In our home, growing up, our record collection had a few albums featuring artists such as Perry Como and Bing Crosby, but the majority of our vinyl was Country.   Later, Christmas cassettes and CDs by singers like Kathy Mattea and Randy Travis would be added.   My heart can thrill as much to the majesty of Handel as to the life-worn sound of Merle Haggard.  

Country music, real country music, is a perfect genre for Christmas.   We're struggling to find the right balance during Advent as we prepare our hearts for the birth of Christ while we do the necessary practical things which must be done.   We're rejoicing over the birth of a baby, God became man, but it's the birth of our Savior, and that calls to mind the suffering of the crucifixion that is to come for Jesus.   Some of us are snug, with family and friends around us while others are lonely, cold, and poor.   The decorations may be beautiful when they're done, but like the preparation of the feast, there might have been some less than beautiful moments during the process.   Country music can capture all of that.   Sometimes, our soul needs to rise with classical glories and other times, we need to get down and gritty, to deal with the convergence of joy and suffering, light and darkness, quiet and frenzy, earthly poverty and heavenly riches.  


Here are a few tunes, nearest and dearest to my heart at Christmas:


First, there is the voice of Merle Haggard.   I've heard covers of this song that are okay, but no one sings this song with the same feeling as The Hag.   These lyrics affected me as a little girl and they still make me stop and remember those whose Christmas is marked by struggle and poverty.   Today, this is the reality of many people, as our economic system values workers less and leaves more people behind.   I think even those who aren't living in poverty in the United States can relate to "If we make it through December, we'll be fine."  

If we make it through December
Everything's gonna be all right I know
It's the coldest time of winter
And I shiver when I see the falling snow

If we make it through December
Got plans to be in a warmer town come summer time
Maybe even California
If we make it through December we'll be fine

Got laid off down at the factory
And they're timing's not the greatest in the world
Heaven knows I been workin' hard
I wanted Christmas to be right for daddy's girl
Now I don't mean to hate December
It's meant to be the happy time of year
And my little girl don't understand
Why daddy can't afford no Christmas here

If we make it through December
Everything's gonna be alright I know
It's the coldest time of winter
And I shiver when I see the falling snow

If we make it through December
Got plans to be in a warmer town come summer time
Maybe even California
If we make it through December we'll be fine 

 


This is another song which has been recorded by many artists.   This version is correctly called a Willie Nelson cover of Roy Orbison's Christmas hit, but I will always prefer Willie's version to any other.   It reminds me of the homeless in England who sell copies of The Big Issue to those passing by.   Who are we passing by this season and throughout the year?

Pretty paper, pretty ribbons of blue
Wrap your presents to your darling from you
Pretty pencils to write I love you
Pretty paper, pretty ribbons of blue
 
Crowded streets, busy feet hustle by you
Downtown shoppers Christmas is night
There he sits all alone on the sidewalk
Hoping that you won't pass him by
Should you stop better not much too busy
Better hurry my, how time does fly
And in the distance the ringing of laughter
And in the midst of the laughter he cries
 
Pretty paper, pretty ribbons of blue
Wrap your presents to your darling from you
Pretty pencils to write I love you
Pretty paper, pretty ribbons of blue
Oh, oh, pretty paper, pretty ribbons of blue




Randy Travis was a welcome voice in the mid-1980s, as he helped lead Nashville out of the Urban Cowboy aftermath.   If you find yourself mourning a loved one who you  know would not want you to be sad at Christmas, this is your song.


I'm trying to be happy
I know you'd want me to
Being sad at christmas time ain't right
I'm keeping our traditions, wishing you were here
On Christmas Eve I still sing silent night

But White Christmas makes me blue
Everytime I hear it play I think of you
I remember all the good ones we knew
Oh..White Christmas makes me blue
Oh..White Christmas makes me blue.....
 


 

This song really captures the convergences I wrote of.   There are moments when I have this feeling that nags, that this song is borderline sentimentalized and juvenile, but then I hear the angelic voice of Alison Krauss.   I think of the reality it states and the reminder it gives that the precious infant will one day hang upon the Cross.  The perfect, soft back which Mary gently pats and caresses will one day be bloodied and scarred.  I realize Christmas celebrations will seem sentimental and juvenile to some.     Krause, the heavenly voice, and Jackson, the voice of the rest of us, the Every Man, standing with the shepherds.  

The angels knew what was to come
The reason God has sent His son from up above
It filled their hearts with joy to see
And knowing of his destiny
Came tears of love.

And the creatures gathered 'round
And didn't make a sound
[Both]
And the Angels cried.

 



Continuing with the theme of angelic voices, Emmylou Harris, in this sweet harmony, brings the wonder of Christ's birth down to us.   It's the beautiful sound of heart-felt faith.   Call her "folk" if it makes you feel more sophisticated as you listen to her, but hers is a true country voice.





Then, there are the purely happy nostalgic country tunes, like this from the beautiful Emmylou Harris.   Sure, no one's Christmas is really like this, but sometimes we feel like it is.   I also like to hear this sung by her fellow Trio singer, Dolly Parton.





I love the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.   They have just kept playing great music through years fat and lean.   Another nostalgic tune, written by the great Steve Goodman:





Waylon Jennings sang, "It don't matter who's in Austin, Bob Wills is still the King."   In our home, that was true.   He was one of those treated with the respect of royalty.    I grew up hearing the story of my great-grandfather who was a fiddler.   He often played with Bob's brother, Johnny Lee, and my father and his siblings knew that if they hear Johnny Lee mention their grandfather during a show broadcast from Tulsa, they could expect to see him in a day or two, coming up the road, with his fiddle slung over his back.   Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys will put some Texas Swing into your Christmas with this toe-tapper.   Ahhhwwwwww...






Oh, how my mama loved Johnny Cash.   It would be hard to say what her favorite song was because she loved them all.   She admired his humility and the way he never forgot where he came from and all he came through.   As a child, The Little Drummer Boy was one of my very favorite songs and no one's voice is better suited for it than the deep one of The Man in Black.   This particular performance includes his beautiful introduction to the song, told with the voice of a man who has experienced the transformative love of Christ in his own life:
 



Singing cowboy, Gene Autry, will always be the best singer of this song.   It was the only version I ever heard until my teens:




Okay, it's George Strait.   In Louisiana, even people who don't like country music will not speak ill of George and when I moved in Texas, well, the devotion to the man is even stronger with his fellow Texans.   This is just a classic example of the home pride song some country singers do so well.   It's just fun and the kids love dancing to it.




I can't stand the animation in the videos, but these tug at my heartstrings because they bring back childhood memories.   I either heard them on the Baton Rouge radio stations during December or on a spinning vinyl single which I still own.   THIS is the definitive version of The Cajun Night Before Christmas and its flipside was The Cajun 12 Days of Christmas.   Regional novelty recordings at their best, cher.







Could it really be an American Christmas without Elvis?   No explanations needed.





Another singer who brought country music back to quality after the Urban Cowboy years is Dwight Yoakam.   He is a great songwriter and guardian of traditional music and the Bakersfield Sound.   This is a great cover of another Elvis Christmas song that's, well, everything that made some people fear Elvis when he hit the music scene.   Please note "Don't judge me" remark above.



 
 
Finally, there's this song that's a Christmas standard in Louisiana.   I grew up hearing this song on a local television station's Christmas commercial.   This Aaron Neville version is great, but I also enjoy hearing it sung by another Louisiana son, Harry Connick, Jr.   Not country, but this Christmas song speaks to my southern heart with its soul:
 
 
 
 
 

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