Though it’s called CMA Country Christmas, don’t expect much twang in this year’s edition of the popular TV special. That’s no complaint, because the show delivers something dazzling for almost every holiday musical taste.
Jennifer Nettles once again helms the special, the seventh annual, which airs Monday at 8 p.m. EST on ABC. Taped before a live audience on election night at the Grand Ole Opry House in Nashville, the show features a strong array of country artists who deftly expand beyond their genre, as well as other special guests who otherwise circulate outside country’s porous borders.
Among the standout genre-benders is Kelsea Ballerini, who transforms herself into jazz chanteuse for “The Christmas Song” and “My Favorite Things.” For the latter, she is accompanied by 13-year-old jazz piano prodigy Joey Alexander, who almost steals the show with his syncopated riffs.
Rascal Flatts offers an outside-the-box rock arrangement of caroling favorite “Joy to the World,” accompanied by Lee University’s renowned student choir. And Brett Eldredge goes full Rat Pack in a shimmering midnight-blue tux to turn in a Big Band version of “Let It Snow,” and his jazzy “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” goes down like hot-buttered rum.
Both Rascal Flatts and Eldredge sing cuts from their new Christmas albums, and in fact, they are among nine of the 15 artists on the bill who have new holiday releases.
Two more are Loretta Lynn and Kacey Musgraves, who provide the show’s most countrified sounds with songs from their new albums. The legendary Lynn joins Nettles and Trisha Yearwood for Lynn’s self-penned classic “Country Christmas.” Neo-traditionalist Musgraves makes sure to add a pedal steel to the 22-piece onstage orchestra for both her numbers, the Hawaiian pop standard “Mele Kalikimaka” (with able assistance from the fiddling Quebe Sisters) and “Christmas Makes Me Cry,” a new co-write with Shane McAnally and Brandy Clark that has holiday-standard potential.
Musgraves’ song debut is an exception: The song selections are mostly crowd-pleasers, from Sarah McLachlan’s transcendent “O Come All Ye Faithful” to Yearwood’s soulful “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?” to Amy Grant’s tender “Tennessee Christmas.” But all 23 songs have been freshened in one way or another, including through some inspired pairings. Chris Young and Brad Paisley join forces for “The First Noel.” Nettles and Broadway darling Idina Menzel combine their formidable chops for a breathtaking version of “Little Drummer Boy,” then Nettles returns with R&B artist Andra Day for a rendition of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” that could easily make a home in New Orleans’ French Quarter.
In previous years, off-camera show staff have been known to encourage the audience to standing ovations, but these were left to spontaneity this year, and among the artists who earned them were Nettles and Menzel; Jordan Smith, the winner of The Voice Season 9 who applied his preternatural tenor pipes to “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch”; Kelly Clarkson, who blew off the Opry roof with “Please Come Home for Christmas (Bells Will Be Ringing)”; and Eldredge, who lifted the crowd before he’d even hit the final note of “O Holy Night.”
Since it was a show taping rather than a concert, great chunks of the evening have ended up on the cutting-room floor, including a few mishaps and several song re-dos that the audience happily treated as encore performances.
Nettles memorably missed her cue in “Little Drummer Boy,” admittedly “mesmerized” by the moves of scene-stealing dance sensation J.T. Church, a 10-year-old finalist on So You Think You Can Dance: The Next Generation. And Clarkson was forced to stop mid-verse on “Run Run Rudolph” after muffing the lyrics; the song appears on Red, her 2013 Christmas record.
“Oh … my bad!” Clarkson exclaimed. “It’s not Christmas yet. I haven’t listened to the album.”
Loretta Lynn had similar issues with “Country Christmas.”
Nettles couldn’t resist a comment. “You wrote this song, didn’t you?” she ribbed.
“Yep,” Lynn deadpanned – before nailing the lyrics.