Kacey Musgraves has made her name as a relatively progressive kind of country singer — one who is pro-LGBTQ-rights but also pro-gun, who sings about smoking weed and not being entirely sure about God. She’s equally at home opening for Katy Perry or Lady Antebellum. Musgraves’s first Christmas album, A Very Kacey Christmas, is fairly traditional, as Christmas albums must be, but even so, it carries the occasional spark of novelty.
The best Christmas albums — the legendary A Christmas Gift For You From Phil Spector, or signature releases by Mariah Carey, Nat King Cole, and Bing Crosby — traffic in the contrasting extremes of the season. You can feel the cold of the snow outside (or the lack thereof and longing for, as in Darlene Love’s Californian “White Christmas” intro) and the warmth of the fireplace. But Christmas albums aren’t just about comfort — they’re also about melancholy. There’s the inevitable sadness of the real experience not measuring up to the one we see advertised everywhere. So many of the greatest Tin Pan Alley classics about Christmas, to this day the cornerstones of the Christmas music canon, were written by Jews: “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!” is by Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne, “The Christmas Song” by Mel Tormé, “Silver Bells” by Jay Livingston, and “Baby It’s Cold Outside” by Frank Loesser, among many others. Johnny Marks, a Jewish-American songwriter from New York, dominated the 1950s Christmas music scene, writing “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” “A Holly Jolly Christmas,” “Run Rudolph Run,” “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” and “Silver And Gold.” Many of these songwriters had Anglicized pen names — Jay Livingston had been Jacob Levinson, for example. With that background in mind, it makes sense that so many Christmas songs feel like pressing your face against the glowing window display of a store you can’t go inside.
A few of these Christmas classics show up on A Very Kacey Christmas. Her version of “Let It Snow,” featuring Texas fiddle group The Quebe Sisters, is a Bob Wills–inspired winter Western swing barn dance. There’s also a cover of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” which was originally a hit for Gene Autry, the king of Hollywood cowboys. “Rudolph” feels like it just appeared, fully formed, in pop culture at the dawn of time; it’s hard to comprehend that Marks wrote it in 1949. Musgraves’s “Rudolph” features a clarinet solo by Nashville multi-instrumentalist Rory Hoffman that cuts against the sweetness, and sounds just klezmer-y enough I was reminded again of Rudolph’s subtle spiritually Jewish roots and that his story is that of an outsider striving to belong, whose social identity is connected to issues about his nose.
Kacey’s cover songs are retro, and so is the cover art, which features the well-coiffed singer in winged eyeliner and a mohair sweetheart sweater, smiling and staring into the distance, away from our gaze. Christmas advertising traffics in nostalgia, and the constant repetition of this specific canon of songs each year, with new artists covering them, is one of the few dependable spots in an otherwise ever-changing musical landscape. Every year there will be Christmas albums, and they will always cover at least some of these same songs. Musgraves brings a gentleness to the general proceedings. She's cited The Vince Guaraldi Trio’s mid-century classic A Charlie Brown Christmas as an influence. Most Christmas albums are made for establishing a sense of quiet festivity, rather than the ambient roar of cranked heat.
She brings mariachi elements to a cover of José Feliciano’s “Feliz Navidad” and Hawaiian slack guitar to a cover of "Mele Kalikimaka" that also features The Quebe Sisters. “A Willie Nice Christmas” is, as you might expect, about getting really baked for Christmas. Willie Nelson drops in for his guest verse to roll a blunt with wrapping paper. Texan singer-songwriter Leon Bridges appears on duet “Present Without a Bow,” another sad Christmas song about a couple separated: “The holiday’s just another day that’s cold.” Musgraves channels her inner Brenda Lee to match up to Bridges, who soars.
The centerpiece of Musgraves’s gilded holiday tablescape is “Christmas Makes Me Cry,” an original song from A Very Kacey Christmas. It leans into the melancholy side of Christmas music for a ballad with lonesome lap steel guitar and cheery vibraphone. “It's all red and gold and Nat King Cole and tinsel on the tree,” she sings, before setting into the dark side: “And I know that they say ‘Have a happy holiday’/ and every year I sincerely try / Oh, but Christmas, it always makes me cry.” In the spirit of Elvis’s “Blue Christmas,” the sadder Musgraves sings about being, the more beautifully she sings. She captures the feeling of how every Christmas channels ghosts: of Christmases past, memories of being a kid, reflections on another year gone by.
The album ends, as all Christmas albums must, with a song about the only holiday more potentially depressing than Christmas: New Year’s Eve. Musgraves covers “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?” another Frank Loesser song that’s been covered endlessly. It shares with Kacey’s “Christmas Makes Me Cry” the theme of the fear of not having anyone to kiss at socially obligated moments. This is a Christmas album that only really comes alive when Musgraves is getting at how holidays often magnify existing, acute feelings of loneliness. For all its lilting joy and cheer, A Very Kacey Christmas is at its best when Musgraves does what she is known for: singing about what often goes unsaid.