You won’t be hard pressed to find a Christmas album in the country section of a record store or on Spotify. But that’s mostly because almost every recording artist has put at Christmas album (or two) in the past 10-15 years. But, anyone looking for winter wonderland vibe that’s a less sugarcoated and more honky tonk heartache, you’ll have to dig a little deeper. Country Christmas songs have their own canon, and while many country collections stray toward somber hymns, moral monologues, and Christmas standards that have been covered ad infinitum, there’s plenty of fun stuff too to add some swing up your Christmas party. Here’s a selection from the 1950s through the 1980s to add some two-step to your holiday.
This is the first track off of Kitty Wells’s 1962 album Christmas with Kitty Wells, 10 years after she broke the country music glass ceiling with her controversial and proto-feminist single “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels.” This ditty’s a slightly inexplicable ode to Dasher, a reindeer who not only needs his own dedicated song à la Rudolph, but also needs his own anatomical incandescence to light Santa’s way as well. Still, it’s a cute track (her backing band has a bit of fun during the second chorus) and a lot more upbeat than her single, “Christmas Ain’t Like Christmas Anymore.”
Never heard of Hank Thompson? He’s the inspiration of the book that was the inspiration for the 2009 movie Crazy Heart—Steven Cooper’s masterful biopic that gave (ahem, national treasure) Jeff Bridges his first and only Academy Award an featured a soundtrack from Stephen Bruton and T Bone Burnett. Hank Thompson was a father of western swing style of country whose heyday was in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Although off his 1964 holiday album, this song exemplifies many of the aspects of the Western swing, with prominent steel guitar, fiddles, and upbeat tempo from his backing band, the Brazos Valley Boys.
If you’re like me, you want to saw your ears off when “Rockin Around the Christmas Tree” or “Jingle Bell Rock” comes on the Muzak this time of year. But that doesn’t mean I don’t like Brenda Lee. In fact, this song came out in 1956, two years before her mega (and undying) holiday hits. This song was actually her second release after her breakout track (at the age of 12), “Jambalaya.” You can hear more of a country flavor on this track that typifies her folks roots, more so than her (equally pleasurable) pop fare that would soon follow.
This rinky-dink song, recorded long before Jones’ mega stardom in the 1960s and ‘70s, is as childish as it is catchy. Jones’s grievances about his “old” baby aren’t especially compelling—he whines about exchanging one woman for another like a blender that wasn’t the right size for your kitchen counter—but the tinkling (out of tune?) piano and simplistic lyrics make it a man-child Christmas anthem for the ages.
It’s no surprise that Loretta Lynn—coal miner’s daughter, resident of Fist City, and proponent of the Pill a wise-ass Christmas tune for her no-good man. In this song, off her 1966 album A Country Christmas, she puts her foot down on a guy who’s been treating her wrong. The refrain implies she’s through being a doormat and homemaker, but I have a feeling she is talking about something else (“your bulbs are burnt out”). Decorate your own goddamn tree, and while you’re at it, go get your halls decked and your bells jingled somewhere else, too.
In this working-class ballad, Haggard cajoles his cash-strapped family to make it through one more month, promising warmer and brighter days ahead. Slightly upbeat, thoroughly sad, and signature Haggard fare, it’s about a blue-collar family that’s cold, present-less, but still have themselves and their dreams to get them through. What’s most depressing is that it’s as apt for our current economy as it was in 1974.
Bet you didn’t know the man in black was so excited about the man in red coming around. If you’d like to make it a Very Johnny Cash Christmas, put on his 1963 album The Christmas Spirit, or, for less somber fare, look up his Christmas television specials on YouTube, where many are uploaded in full. (There’s a scene-stealing steel guitar performance by Barbara Mandrell that I’m partial to in the 1976 special.)
For all the country Christmas songs about folks not coming home for the holidays, here’s one about someone actually returning and making everyone happy instead of ruining everything. Still, for “one happy Christmas,” the song is a bit morose, with Wynette not sounding completely convinced it will be all that happy, or trying to convince herself that a guy coming in at 3am Christmas Eve constitutes a Christmas miracle. It probably isn’t surprising to learn this was recorded during her tumultuous marriage to George Jones.
You might want to strike this country classic from your playlist and save for karaoke night or crying alone into your apple wine. This heartbreaker is from the 1982 film The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, where it’s an ensemble song shared among the women of the Chicken Ranch after they’re forced to leave their brothel. But I like it more as a solo song, where one woman entertains a host of different futures for herself during a real rough patch. And when she swears she’ll be “fine,” you know it’s not a motherly Madame reassuring her girls she’ll be alright, it’s just a hard candy lie.
Strait is a master of finding rhymes for Texas cities, and this number off his 1989 Christmas album (Merry Christmas Strait to You—get it?) is no exception. Though just a holiday novelty, the tune still carries the elements that would make Strait a legend—earnestness, the right amount of sentimentality, and revitalized western swing.