Carrie! Brad! Little Big Town! Here's a preview of all that this year's special has in store
Credit: Craig Sjodin/ABC

The fifth annual CMA Country Christmas airs Monday night, and if you’re planning to watch, get ready to see a steady, seamless stream of holiday musical magic.

But in the real world – when the show was taped post-CMAs on Nov. 7 in Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena – it took three hours and 15 minutes of stops, starts and do-overs to create all that polish.

Want to know more? Here’s an inside preview of what’s in store on tonight’s two-hour show:

Girls Rule Yule: Males may dominate the country charts, but it takes women to make a true Country Christmas. Of the 20 songs performed, women are the featured artists on 11, and two more numbers are turned in by Little Big Town, the reigning CMA vocal group of the year that includes Kimberly Schlapman and Karen Fairchild.

Among the songs to look forward to: Carrie Underwood with Michael W. Smith singing “All Is Well,” Sara Evans on “Go Tell It on the Mountain” and LeAnn Rimes performing “Carol of the Bells.”

Not Just Your Standard Fare: Yes, you’ll get “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” (Dan + Shay) and “Winter Wonderland” (Alan Jackson), but the show also spotlights new or little-heard holiday music. Lucy Hale debuts her bouncy Christmas single, “Mistletoe,” and Underwood’s majestic “All Is Well” is a Smith co-write that appeared on his first Christmas album in 1989 (and reappears with Underwood on his latest Christmas CD).

Jackson also performs his self-penned ballad “Let It Be Christmas,” the name of his second holiday album, released in 2002. And Phillip Sweet takes lead vocals on Little Big Town’s jazzy, soulful version of Harry Connick, Jr.’s “I Pray on Christmas.”

Nash-Crashers: Broadway and Frozen superstar Idina Menzel drops in to promote her new album Holiday Wishes with two stirring cuts, “Do You Hear What I Hear?” and “White Christmas.” But the real showstopper is Menzel harmonizing in a soaring duet of “Let It Go” with show host Jennifer Nettles.

During breaks, the song inspired a flurry of kids to sing their own versions into a mic for off-air host Storme Warren. Among the copycats? Little Big Town daughters Daisy Schlapman, 7, and Penelopi Sweet, 5, who sang as parents Kimberly Schlapman and Phillip Sweet beamed from the stage. (Alas, this new singing duo – Little Little Town? – wasn’t captured for viewers.)

Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler, decked out in tartan bell-bottoms, also shows up to rock with axe-wielding Brad Paisley on “Run, Run, Rudolph.”

Take Two: For whatever reason, producers ordered a second take for seven of the 20 songs – a necessity greeted with grateful cheers for a second helping of Rimes’s intricate “Carol of the Bells.” After Tyler and Paisley’s raucous turn, as producers huddled to decide on a retake, the audience took matters into their own hands, chanting: “One more time! One more time!” Tyler and Paisley happily obliged.

Standing Os: You will be seeing a lot of them tonight – in fact, after practically every song. Though perhaps you’ll notice some are more spontaneous than others. Nashville audiences are generous, yes, but they’re also discriminating – so what gives?

In shows like this, the audience is expected to perform, too, and before taping began, Storme Warren not only asked for standing ovations, but also recruited an audience member to lead the charge. “Standing ovations look really, really good on TV,” Warren declared. You be the judge.

CMA Country Christmas airs tonight at 8 p.m. ET/7 p.m. CT on ABC.

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