As much as I love Country music—even the bad stuff—when Christmas comes around, Country music seems to spit out some really bad tracks (it’s not that I don’t think Alan Jackon’s Christmas album isn’t very good it’s just… okay, it’s exactly that). But I want you know that it doesn’t have to be this way! There is some wonderful Christmas music that has that high and lonesome sound—you’ve just got to look for it.
Christmas albums are by nature somewhat stale. It takes real talent to make a beautiful Christmas album—especially with songs that we’ve all heard before. But there are some tracks and albums that give me hope in Christmas music, and even help me love and worship Jesus.
1. Gene Autry- Here Comes Santa Claus
Okay, maybe this song doesn’t draw me into a deep reverence for Jesus. But this song is a cultural catalyst—a staple in the American Christmas canon. This is my favorite “Santa Claus” song. It takes me to a place of Christmasy giddiness. Gene Autry captures the aesthetic of American Christmas in all of its glory. Some might object to the irreverent cultural manifestations of American Christmas, but there is real beauty in culture—ours included. Sure there is sinful materialism and a tinge of moralism in the idea that Santa has a “naughty list” and a “nice list”. But the mythological wonder, the altruism, and the beautiful décor say so much about the character of God—wholly other, compassionate, and beautiful—that maybe we should forgive Santa and give Gene Autry a listen.
I love that Autry sings,
“Lets give thanks to the Lord above, cause Santa Claus comes tonight”
Autry doesn’t need to reconcile the myth with the truth since, as CS Lewis would say, myths sometimes tell us just as much about reality as the facts. Autry probably wasn’t trying to make a big statement here. It’s still a great tune.
2. Ronnie Fauss- Everybody Deserves a Merry Christmas
Ronnie Fauss’s new Christmas album reminds me why I love good Christmas music and good alternative-country. “Everybody Deserves a Merry Christmas” is a fun, romping Christmas song with a great grasp of the heart of Christmas (that is, the heart of Jesus). And, ultimately, it’s just a really good country song (Fauss put out one of my favorite albums of 2013, you should check it out)
Fauss uses the ambiguous genre of “Christmas music” to sing about classic country themes of hard living, bad choices, and drifting. But he does it in a way that directly points back to Jesus. I absolutely love the last verse:
Well I’ve traveled up and down and all across this land
I’ve seen the very best and the very worst of man
My brothers are the drifters, the beggars, and the thieves
And I believe that baby was born for the ones like these
You can buy it on iTunes here.
3. John Prine- Christmas in Prisonhttp://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R1uIFs-pNdc
I have a penchant for songs about prison. Live at Folsom Prison by Johnny Cash is one of my top 5 favorite albums of all time, Jimmie Rogers “In The Jailhouse Now” was one of the songs that led me to country music, and the song above (Fauss’s “Everybody Deserves A Merry Christmas”) takes place in prison. Prison is the perfect setting for Christmas music. It’s full of people who are longing for the love and second chances that the birth of Christ promised.
And, come on, it’s John Prine—everything song he sings is a good country song.
4. Sufjan Stevens- Once In Royal David’s City
So, this one isn’t exactly a country song… at all. But Sufjan’s first Christmas box set, Songs For Christmas, is a powerful and spiritually rich compilation (that includes three versions of “O Come O Come Emmanuel). The album is reverent, beautiful and powerful. His version of “Come Thou Fount” is without a doubt my favorite version of the classic hymn.
One of my favorite tracks on the compilation is one of the two versions of the old tune “Once In Royal David’s City”. It’s a beautiful, banjo driven ode to the momentous birth of Jesus. Sufjan’s soft, almost otherworldly voice adds a powerful reverence to the song that makes it timeless.
5. Emmylou Harris- The First Noel
Without a doubt, Emmylou Harris’ Christmas album Light of the Stable is one of my favorite Christmas albums of all time. And her beautiful, a cappella version of “The First Noel” is the jewel in the crown of the album. Her voice is chilling—per usual—and it sets the “Christmas mood” like almost no other song does.
There are so many more… well, there are some more good country Christmas songs. Willie Nelson put out a pretty good Christmas album, Dylan’s recent Christmas album isn’t terrible, and, of course, Johnny Cash’s classic Christmas album is incredible. But as a lover of both Country music and Christmas, I would like to apologize for the popular lackluster Country Christmas albums of the last 20 years.