The inherent sweetness of Kacey Musgraves’ new holiday album “A Very Kacey Christmas” is revealed early on. During “Christmas Don’t Be Late,” the country music stylist transforms a nearly 60 year old pop relic into a spry country waltz with a hint of accordion providing a bordertown kick. The original version, of course, was popularized by Alvin and the Chipmunks and came loaded with kitsch. But Musgraves sings the song straight, embracing its childlike wonder and unavoidable innocence while discarding its campy extremes.
That, in a nutshell, is what “A Very Kacey Christmas” is all about and why it stands as one of the year’s more appealing new holiday recordings. Musgraves avoids carols and focuses strongly on the pop side of the season. But she also avoids the excess sentimentalism that country artists ladle onto Christmas music by the pickup truckload. Credit that to the mix of traditionalism, roots-consciousness and cunning that has made her one of the more refreshing young voices out of Nashville.
Four original tunes are served up on this holiday platter, the most immediately amusing being “A Willie Nice Christmas,” a clever collaboration with – who else? – Willie Nelson. The tune is played against a ukulele rhythm, creating a sense of tropical escape anchored by the promise to, with Willie’s help, “leave some special cookies for Santa.” Use your imagination.
That is about as far as adult innuendo extends on “A Very Kacey Christmas.” “Ribbons and Bows” is all hand-clapping, Ronettes-style girl group pop – a total vacation from anything Nashville oriented. On the flip side is “Christmas Makes Me Cry,” a waltz of lighter, more fanciful but also more purposely bittersweet design. Spliced emotively between the two is “Present Without a Bow,” a romantic encounter that falls between vintage country and soul with Leon Bridges serves as a suave ambassador of the latter.
The standards get an appealing makeover, too. “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” sparkles with colors of prairie-flavored pedal steel, percussive ‘60s orchestration and Musgraves’ wide eyed singing while “Feliz Navidad” surrenders to full Tex Mex treatment, joyous and gorgeously rhythmic.
Color me crazy, but the sentiments of “A Very Kacey Christmas” crystallize best during “I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas.” Musgraves’ Nashville-meets-Dr. Seuss treatment of the 1953 novelty hit barrels along like a cartoon parade enriched by a sense of glee as genuine as it is unassuming. In keeping with the record’s mission of capturing and/or recreating a sense of secular childhood joy (Willie’s “special cookies,” notwithstanding), the performance nicely balances sentiments nostalgic and contemporary. And after the kind of year 2016 has turned out to be, who really wouldn’t want “to see my hippo hero standing there” on Christmas morning? I don’t know about you, but that’s the holiday gathering I want to be invited to.