CMA Country Christmas Highlights: Not Too Countrified, But It Still Makes Very Merry
Okay, country fans, admit it: There is nothing fundamentally country about Christmas. So remember that when pop crooner Tony Bennett, jazz stylist Diana Krall and dancing violinist (not fiddler) Lindsey Stirling all turn up on the ninth annual CMA Country Christmas show.
For that matter, you’ll have to curb your craving for anything remotely Hank-ish from Brett Eldredge, Old Dominion, Dan + Shay, Martina McBride and the majority of the other country artists who appear on this holiday special, which airs Monday night on ABC. Most of the vibe is a lush, ’60s pop sound, courtesy of a stellar onstage Big Band orchestra.
Indeed, about the only things plu-pure-perfect country in this show are host Reba McEntire (who could put a twang in “Madame Butterfly”) and the cowboy hats atop Brad Paisley and Dustin Lynch — though even McEntire changes the lyrics of “Hard Candy Christmas” from countrified “apple wine” to “cheap red wine.” (Oh dear … Don’t tell Dolly.)
But consider all this a quibble. Clearly the show’s powers-that-be were intent on creating a Christmas musical banquet to feed all tastes, and they’ve bountifully reached that goal. The two-hour special, taped in Nashville, features 14 acts and more than 20 songs that brim with holiday cheer.
McEntire returns for a second year as host, and she ably holds the helm, as well as ornaments the stage with a succession of tinsel-town gowns. Besides “Hard Candy Christmas,” she gets four opportunities to display her hefty musical chops, from the buoyant show-opener “Man with the Bag” (complete with dancing elves) to the joyful closer, “Let It Snow,” joined by 11 other cast members. McEntire’s warmth also staves off any wintry chill with “The Christmas Song” (aka “Chestnuts Roasting …”), and “What Child Is This?” She’s joined on the latter by the divine harmonies of bluegrass family band The Isaacs.
McBride gets two merry moments on stage with “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas” and “Happy Holiday,” cuts from her new Christmas album, It's the Holiday Season.
Over the years, McBride has turned herself into a Christmas tradition with her recordings and holiday-themed tours, and now Brett Eldredge is following suit by staking his own yuletide claim. Capitalizing on the popularity of his 2016 holiday album Glow, Eldredge brings his smooth croon to the show with “Silver Bells” and “A Holly Jolly Christmas” — two of the five new cuts off Glow’s newly released deluxe edition. His appearance here is just part of a grand tour of holiday-themed live and televised performances this season.
Dan + Shay take ownership of the stage with a soaring performance of “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” demonstrating what has become abundantly clear: Shay Mooney‘s voice has joined the Great Pyramids and the Taj Mahal as a Wonder of the World. The newly Grammy-nominated duo earn one of the few standing ovations of the evening, as does the ageless and timeless Tony Bennett.
A pop icon, Bennett actually comes with some country bona fides: He had a monster No. 1 pop hit back in 1951 with Hank Williams’ “Cold Cold Heart.” Now 92, Bennett joins Diana Krall for “Our Love Is Here to Stay.” An evergreen any month of the year, it’s one of 12 cuts on their recent Gershwin tribute album, which garnered two Grammy nominations last Friday.
Bennett and Krall turn toward the holidays with a dreamy duet of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” Then Krall, at the piano, goes solo with a boogie-woogie jazz version of “Jingle Bells,” and Bennett returns for a high-spirited “My Favorite Things” (by now an inexplicable holiday standard).
During his time on stage, Brad Paisley treads tenderly, shunning his usual guitar pyrotechnics to deliver “Away in the Manger” as an acoustic lullaby. On the flip side, Dustin Lynch offers an electric “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home),” and Old Dominion surfs through a frothy cover of the Beach Boys’ “Little Saint Nick.”
Christmas stalwarts Michael W. Smith and Amy Grant arrive for two collaborations: one of Grant’s holiday compositions, the jubilant “To Be Together,” and Smith’s “Gloria,” an ecstatic re-interpretation of “Angels We Have Heard on High,” backed by a 22-voice choir.
Showcasing her hypnotic dancing and violin play, Lindsey Stirling turns in another re-interpretation of “Angels We Have Heard on High” — though both versions are so wildly imaginative you could hardly call them the same song. Stirling also tolls in “Carol of the Bells,” accompanied by four booted-and-ruffled dancers who look like they’ve leapt from a scene in “Hamilton.” Both of Stirling’s songs appear on her new holiday album, Warmer in the Winter.
With the exception of Brett Young‘s performance, the entire show was recorded in a four-hour marathon at the Curb Event Center at Belmont University back in September, about six weeks earlier than previous years, so give the cast extra credit for conjuring the Christmas spirit in early fall. It airs at 8 p.m EST Monday on ABC.