Big Sound Saturdays: Country Christmas!

We had this tradition for a while at WKCR-FM: Once a year, 36 hours straight of live programmed country music, the annual Country Music Festival. It was full of secrets! The overnights are always the hardest to cover, so we peppered them with country couples, truck-driving country (and the sub-genre, mark me, of alien-versus-trucker races), and my favorite: every midnight, an unannounced hour of country Christmas.

Country Christmas flies an unbelievable wingspan—transitioning from Christmas carols to the ever-growing realm of undeniable pop in the 1940s, it’s still a genre that carries some weight and some more Billboard chart-toppers. In 2003 alone, Jimmy Wayne’s “Paper Angels” was at #18 on the Billboard Hot Country Singles & Tracks chart, Marty Stewart’s “Even Santa Claus Gets the Blues” hit #55, and at #30, Kenny Chesney’s “All I Want for Christmas Is a Real Good Tan,” birthed from the exhausting and oft-reiterated genre of Beach Music (weirdly, like the murder ballad, country-songs-about-the-beach is looped into genre blankets but not really talked about on its own).

Which is to say! I (mostly) kept my cool this first round and pulled almost exclusively from the 1950s and 1960s: Tex Ritter, Eddy Arnold, Kitty Wells, Loretta Lynn’s “Good Old Country Christmas.” I listened to so many country Christmas songs that I actually started to confuse the two genres. Like, not all country songs are Christmas songs—blasphemy!—but is every kinda classic Christmas song just really “country?” It’s crazy how well “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” (not included here, you’re welcome) fits with Leroy Van Dyke’s sound, how easily Gene Autry (track 5, you’re also welcome) sings “Here Comes Santa Claus (Right Down Santa Claus Lane).” Hank Thompson’s scooping, bluesy intro to “I’d Like To Have An Elephant For Christmas” is just one of many markers of country music’s dark tonal (and often lyrical, melodic, referential…) underbelly, but maybe Christmas carols have that, too?

In any case, diving into a mix like this is dizzying, but don’t let it defeat you. Leading in with a cautionary tale by the great Ferlin Husky—“Christmas is holy, not a holiday”—I’ve thrown Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters’ paean to Hawaiian country music “Mele Kalikimaka (The Hawaiian Christmas Song)” in with Hank Snow’s Christmas boogie and Tex Ritter’s Christmas polka and even included a couples duet, Red Foley and Judy Martin’s “Our Christmas Waltz.” Even though some of these songs are, I admit, deeply stupid (Tennessee Ernie Ford’s “Christmas Dinner” is a long, jingly catalogue of hot holiday foods), there’s also beauty—Faron Young’s “You’re The Angel On My Christmas Tree”—and Brenda Lee’s disorienting “I’m Gonna Lasso Santa Claus,” a cowboy vigilante battle that paints Santa as the great withholder and teen dream Lee as a blonde, bedazzled Robin Hood.

Anyway, it’s kind of like Christmas in the Southern Hemisphere today, and I thought we might as well celebrate. From the Louvin Brothers, ACRO Collective, and I, Merry Christmas, all the time!

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