By Jon Black
So, the CMA’s “Country Christmas” special is tonight – and you’re not excited. The reason doesn’t matter. Maybe you don’t cotton to sound of mainstream Nashville country. Perhaps you like your country old-school, outlaw or alt. It could be that, at heart, you’re a rockabilly, a roots-rocker, blues aficionado or a left-of-the-dial folkie.
Whatever the cause, Awaiting the Flood has your cure. There’s no need to feel like Ebenezer Scrooge in your ears – or your heart. Here, from the elves at Awaiting the Flood to all of you, are 12 country, roots and folk Christmas songs that you probably wouldn’t have heard on “County Christmas” anyway — a play list that is a blend of sincerity, irony and camp to warm your heart.
12) “Hard Candy Christmas” Dolly Parton
From 1982’s “Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.” While the eponymous whorehouse is an unorthodox location to celebrate the season, this song is actually every bit as syrupy-sweet as is its title. Parton’s feathery voice and the somewhat maudlin music are wrapped around an important truth: when we’re getting over hard knocks and through hard times is exactly when we need Christmas the most.
11) “Redneck 12 Days of Christmas” Jeff Foxworthy
Jeff Foxworthy has a gift: the ability to lovingly poke fun at the things he loves and take the rest of us along for the ride. While some have accused his routines of trading in stereotypes, comedy is an art of exaggeration and, deep down, don’t his larger-than-life stories remind us of what we love (and are horrified by) in our family, our friends and ourselves? In the final analysis, isn’t Santa Claus himself just the world’s most famous good ol’ boy?
10) “I Told Santa Claus” Fats Domino
With a lively boogie-woogie and a voice that positively drips New Orleans honey, the Big Easy’s celebrated pianist adds this distinctive and up-beat contribution to the genre of “telling Santa what I really want for Christmas is you” songs.
9) “1913 Massacre” Woody Guthrie
Admittedly an abrupt change of pace from Fats Domino, this song is an appeal for “peace on earth and goodwill towards men” as only Woody Guthrie, populist troubadour and champion of the common man, could deliver it. The song documents an actual event that occurred on December 24th, 1913 in Calumet, Michigan—when a building hosting a Christmas party of copper miners and their families was set afire by agents of the mine owners, resulting in 73 deaths. A beautiful, powerful, haunting song – but definitely not a good substitute for “’Twas the Night Before Christmas” when all the children are gathered around to hear Grandpa tell a Christmas tale.
8) “Merry Christmas (I Don’t Want to Fight tonight)” The Ramones
Some people say the jury is still out on whether punk should qualify as a roots genre. Awaiting the Flood has no doubts, which lets us get this little high-energy gem onto our list. Joey Ramone’s velvety voice and some great string and percussion work from his ‘brothers’ provide the medium for this sweet little Christmas love song (well, as sweet as The Ramones get, anyway).
7) “Christmas at Midnight” Leadbelly
In the big picture, Christmas is about the power of believing in miracles and redemption. It is hard to imagine a musician who experienced more of either miracles or redemption than Huddie Ledbetter, the bluesman and folk musician known to the world as “Leadbelly.” Some of that very personal joy, and pain, bleeds through onto this recording.
6) “Christmas in Washington” Steve Earle
Another song with beautiful music and lyrics that may send you running straight to spike the eggnog, country/folk crossover superstar Earle uses the occasion of “Christmas in Washington” to highlight the detachment of American leaders from the needs and dreams of everyday citizens. Fans of old-school folk will find a lot of Easter Eggs (or, in this case, Christmas presents) in the lyrics.
5) “Merry Christmas from the Family” Robert Earl Keene
Robert Earl Keene is the existentialist troubadour of Outlaw County, his ability to starkly chronicle life’s large miseries and small triumphs as a dispassionate observer is well on display on in classics such as “The Road Goes on Forever” and “Corpus Christi Bay.” Here, he turns the same lens to Christmas … as experienced by one unremarkable family: awkward, slightly dysfunctional yet hopeful— and, probably, more like most family Christmases than the picture painted by better-known Holiday classics.
4) “Country Christmas” Loretta Lynn
A great, up-tempo, old-school country song. The original Queen of Country offers a lyrically vivid, sepia-toned (and perhaps slightly rose-colored) recounting of an old fashioned Christmas as seen through the eyes of country girl whose family didn’t have much to give for Christmas except love.
3) “If We Make it Through December” Merle Haggard
With all the stoicism and plainspoken poetry you’d expect from the protagonist of a Haggard song, “If We Make It Through December” tells the story of an unemployed man just trying to get his family through December’s cold while giving them some kind of Christmas. Yes, the line about his little girl not understanding why they won’t have a Christmas may be predictable – but the genuine pathos created by the moment is not. (Look for the Texas Playboys’ Johnny Gimble on fiddle and Hargus “Pig” Robbins on piano adding some delightful instrumental depth to the piece).
2) “7 O’clock News/Silent Night” Simon & Garfunkel
One of the most powerful, beautiful and emotionally-charged songs in the history of folk and folk-rock. The piece blends Simon and Garfunkel’s rendition of Silent Night—a tender, almost ethereal, duet that was one of the finest in the history of their partnership—with the jarring sound and tragic content of a news broadcast (while the “broadcast” was created in the studio, all of the stories it treats were actual events unfolding at the time of the song’s August 1966 recording). The resulting work is an impassioned and thought-provoking juxtaposition of the meaning of Christmas with human frailty.
1) “The Christmas Guest” Johnny Cash
Cash’s adaptation of this old German folktale is more spoken-word than song. It tells the story of Conrad, a lonely storekeeper who is overjoyed to expect the Lord as his Christmas guest. Conrad’s preparations to receive this very important guest keep getting interrupted by unexpected visitors: a beggar, an old woman and a homeless waif. If you haven’t heard the story, I won’t ruin the ending for you – but the “plot twist” here is not exactly M. Night Shyamalan material. It is, however, a touching, sweet and potent reminder of the special importance of looking after those needier than ourselves at this time of year — all rendered with the inherent gravitas conveyed by Cash’s deep baritone voice.
So, there you are. Twelve Christmas tunes to make you laugh, cry and feel — without having to turn to televised Christmas Specials. “Merry Christmas” or “Bah, Humbug!” it’s up to you!
In case you want just a little bit more off-the-beaten path Christmas roots music, here are the “runners-up” to this list: “Christmas Blues” by Canned Heat, “Blues for Christmas” by John Lee Hooker, “Blue Christmas” by Elvis Presley, “Christmas Holidays” by Texas Pete Mayes, “Old Toy Train” by Roger Miller, “Oi! To the World” by The Vandals. “Cold, Cold Heart” by Hank Williams (Okay, it’s a bit of a stretch, but we wanted Hank to be on here somewhere!)
Any songs belonging on this list that we forgot? Let us know in the “comments” section below!