Sure, all the performers are glammed up and a 25-piece orchestra brings a big band sound, but new host Reba McEntire still manages to keep a down-home feel to the eighth annual CMA Country Christmas special, which airs Monday evening on ABC.
Gone are the Broadway-style dance numbers and quirky cameos (see: Miss Piggy, circa 2011) of the previous seven shows, which Jennifer Nettles hosted. And gone are the artists from other genres – Andra Day, Mary J. Blige, Steven Tyler, John Legend, and Sarah McLachlan, just to name a few – that have filled out previous lineups. This time around, the only genre detour arrives on gospel artist CeCe Winans’ gossamer wings – and what country fan won’t soar with Winans on her ecstatic rendering of “Joy to the World”?
No doubt McEntire worked to keep the “country” in this Christmas special, assembling a strong roster of the genre’s superstars, up-and-comers, and one lucky newbie: CB30, teenage brothers Christian and Brody Clementi, who are Luke Bryan protégés. They turn in a fetching “Christmas Song” (aka “Chestnuts Roasting … ”) while perched on the lip of the stage of Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry House, where the show was filmed on Nov. 14.
In all, 12 country acts, including McEntire, perform 19 songs that lean toward holiday favorites. McEntire bookends the evening with two of the season’s most cheer-inducing tunes, kicking off with “Jingle Bells,” a duet with Kelsea Ballerini, and winding up with “Holly Jolly Christmas” as Santa roams the Opry House aisles.
In between, McEntire chats with her co-stars about Christmas plans and favorite holiday memories. And she proves why she’s associated with some of the most beloved music of the season, choosing only piano accompaniment for a stirring medley of “O Come All Ye Faithful,” “O Little Town of Bethlehem” and “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” three cuts off her latest (and third) holiday album, My Kind of Christmas.
She also joins Little Big Town on stage and asks their permission: “If you really don’t mind, I would really like to become the fifth member.” McEntire means it: Rather than taking the lead, she dives into the group’s harmonizing, and the five voices deliver a sumptuous performance of “Mary, Did You Know?”
Another notable vocal blend features Chris Young and Alan Jackson, who re-create “There’s a New Kid in Town” from Young’s 2016 Christmas album – an homage to the Jackson-Keith Whitley duet that appears on Jackson’s 1993 holiday record. (TV viewers won’t get to see Jackson muff his Whitley part. The Country Music Hall of Famer got a retake. “It’s a tough song to sing,” he told the audience, “because nobody sings it like Keith Whitley.”)
Bryan leaves behind his party-hearty stage persona to deliver a solemn (if twangy) “O Holy Night.” And with dramatic stage lighting to set the mood, Dan + Shay find the awe in “Do You Hear What I Hear?”
Trisha Yearwood holds back her signature pipes for a sexy, breathy “Santa Baby,” then returns to the stage to pull out the stops, the country catch in her voice conveying both the vulnerability and steely resolve of “Hard Candy Christmas.”
Kimberly Schlapman, usually the steady harmonizer behind Little Big Town powerhouse Karen Fairchild, takes an unexpected lead in the group’s “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?” and her delivery has a champagne effervescence.
Like LBT, Lady Antebellum also earns two turns on stage, for “This Christmas” and “Silver Bells.” The latter comes with a driving, expectant rhythm that fits the season – not to mention the fact that Dave Haywood’s second baby is due in December and Hillary Scott is having twin girls in February.
Brett Eldredge ring-a-ding-dings in the holidays in Sinatra-esque fashion, savoring the brass accompaniment to “Winter Wonderland” and “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas.” Dustin Lynch also relishes the big band beat with “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town.”
Jackson returns to the stage to lend his smooth baritone to sentimental favorite “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” and a steel guitar underscores the song’s bittersweetness. Ballerini also makes a reappearance, taking “White Christmas” in a jazzy direction with a buoyant tempo and frothy high notes.
CMA Country Christmas airs at 8 p.m. EST Monday, Nov. 27 on ABC.