Ranking the five best holiday-themed country songs

photo: Los Angeles Times

By Jeff Uveino

Each genre of music has its own take on holiday music.

While country artists have covered plenty of holiday classics, this genre has produced its own fair share of seasonal music, as well. Here are the five best holiday-themed country songs, ranked.

5. “Christmas Cookies,” George Strait (2000)

This upbeat score by the “king of country music” sounds exactly like the title would suggest. Strait repeatedly says, “I sure do love those Christmas cookies,” and for a variety of reasons. The best part of baking cookies, according to Strait?

“Every time she sticks another batch in the oven, there’s 15 minutes for some kissin’ and huggin’.”

4. “Merry Christmas From the Family,” Robert Earl Keen (1994)

Later covered by Montgomery Gentry, this holiday epic from Texas-based indie artist Robert Earl Keen tells the story of a stereotypical poor, redneck family getting together to celebrate Christmas.

The song’s lyrics have an abundance of twists and turns, including chain smoking while listening to Christmas carols, a quest for extension cords and a motor home blowing the host family’s Christmas lights.

3. “Honky Tonk Christmas,” Alan Jackson (1993)

If you’re a fan of Alan Jackson’s fiddle-filled tunes from the 90s, this song is for you. Jackson’s 1993 holiday album, of which this song is the title track, is filled with the same steel guitar and other traditional country sounds that made him famous.

On this record, however, his songs of hard work and heartbreak are focused on Christmas. “I Only Want You for Christmas” is another highlight of the album.

2. “Santa Looked a Lot Like Daddy,” Buck Owens (1965)

Owens is most well-known for bringing the “Bakersfield sound,” a west-coast style of country music that featured twangy strings and limited bass, to the mainstream. On this track, he carefully weaves a Christmas tale from the perspective of a child that snuck out of their bed late on Christmas Eve.

“It’s not the way I had him pictured,” Owens screeches in his unmistakable baritone. “Santa was much too thin.”

  1. “If We Make It Through December,” Merle Haggard (1973)

Haggard has a hit song for everything; Christmas included.

The title track of Haggard’s 1974 album with his band “The Strangers,” this song has been covered by many artists in its 47 years of existence. Unlike many country songs that are Christmas-themed, this one doesn’t have a positive undertone.

Haggard tells the story of a factory worker who isn’t particularly fond of the winter time. To make things worse, this year, the song’s narrator has been laid off from his factory job, leaving him wondering how he is going to be able to afford Christmas presents for his daughter.

For many, December is meant to be the “happy time of year,” as Haggard sings. However, that isn’t the reality of the holiday season for many people. As he did for so many years and on so many hit songs, Haggard illustrates the reality of Christmas from the working man’s perspective.

“If we make it through December,” he says, “we’ll be fine.”

Up next: The four biggest country music stars of the 2020s

photo: Andrew Wendowski

By Jeff Uveino

The beginning of the 2020s found country music in a place that is as familiar to the genre’s history as is a guitar and fiddle.

While some artists work to pull country music forward and evolve its sound, others try to preserve its traditional sounds, as has always been the genre’s case.

The previous decade saw the rise, dominance, and (near) fall of “bro country,” before a new class of Nashville sooners made sappy love songs the featured song type on the radio once again.

Luke Bryan, Florida Georgia Line, Jason Aldean and more dominated the 2010s by tapping into these sounds. Now, however, country music seems to be experiencing a “changing of the guard,” as it has before and will do again in the future.

Of the young artists vying to become the next Aldean, Blake Shelton or Thomas Rhett, four have emerged that represent the current state of the genre holistically.

Each artist’s sound is similar enough to fit the mainstream, yet distinct enough to allow them to stand out. And, while tapping into slightly different circles of an ever-vast world of country music, these four have primed themselves to be the genre’s biggest stars of the 2020s.

Luke Combs

Luke Combs is already a superstar.

The Charlotte, North Carolina native’s popularity skyrocketed in 2017 off of the success of his debut album, “This One’s For You,” and since then, it really hasn’t stopped.

Luke Combs (Matt Winklemeyer/Getty Images)

Comb’s sophomore album, “What You See Is What You Get,” not only dominated country charts in late 2019 and into 2020, but also peaked at No. 1 on Billboard’s genre-binding Top 200 chart. The album has produced four singles that have reached No. 1 on the US country airplay chart, and is certified platinum by the RIAA.

If that’s not impressive enough, “This One’s For You” spent an unprecedented 50 weeks at No. 1 on country charts. 

So, what makes Combs so popular? He has a little bit of everything, which suits everyone. He seamlessly transitions from relentlessly authentic love songs to tales of buck-wild Friday nights, all while maintaining his trademark, acoustic-based sound that features just the right amount of electric guitar.

Combs once again proved his popularity with the release of five new songs last Friday, including “Forever After All,” which soared to the top of genre-wide streaming charts, a feat that is rarely achieved by a country artist.

It’s hard to argue against Combs being the face of country music right now. He dominates the radio. He dominates streaming services. And, if his music catalog stays true to its roots, he will dominate the decade.

Jon Pardi

Jon Pardi’s debut album put his name in the Nashville conversation six years ago, but it was his 2016 album “California Sunrise” that launched his career to the level that it is currently at.

Pardi is this list’s representative for traditional country music. All three of his studio albums are loaded with fiddle, and the Dixon, California native has had a lot of radio success despite keeping his sound and lyrics traditional instead of leaning toward pop.

Jon Pardi (Jim Wright/Rolling Stone)

“California Sunrise” produced four top-10 singles, and is certified platinum by the RIAA.

In 2019, “Heartache Medication” became Pardi’s third No. 1 single on US country radio airplay, and was the lead single for his September album that bears the same name. The album made it to No. 2 on US country charts, largely held back by the dominance of Combs, and continued Pardi’s momentum as the modern-day defender of the “Bakersfield Sound.”

Pardi is 34, which is prime age for a country artist to have the biggest years of their career. Expect to hear him throughout the 20s and beyond.

Morgan Wallen

The bad boy. The wildcard. The mullet.

Despite being the most pop-centric artist on this list, Morgan Wallen has adopted the role of Nashville’s “bad boy” after his rise to fame on the success of his 2018 debut album, “If I Know Me.”

Morgan Wallen (Debby Wong/Shutterstock)

Wallen’s signature mullet, cutoff flannel and skinny jeans look was everywhere in 2019, and, in case you haven’t noticed, an absurd amount of American teenagers are cutting their hair into mullets.

Wallen may be to blame.

He’s gotten into some trouble this year, infamously getting arrested at Kid Rock’s bar in Nashville in May, and getting removed from hosting NBC’s Saturday Night Live in October after videos surfaced of him partying the week before.

However, country music has always made space for outlaws. And while Wallen’s music doesn’t fit the outlaw bill, his freewheeling lifestyle does.

At just 27 years old, Wallen’s potential is endless. George Strait, whom many consider the king of modern day country music, didn’t have his first No. 1 hit until he was 30. Wallen has had three such hits on country radio so far, and his new single “7 Summers” not only debuted at No. 1 on country charts in September, but at No. 6 on pop charts.

Wallen’s upcoming album, for which “7 Summers” was the third released single, will be a good litmus test for his popularity. Don’t be surprised to see Combs-like numbers produced by that record, and the rest of his work this decade.

Riley Green

Representing the state of Alabama, Riley Green is perhaps the least popular of the aforementioned artists. At least for now.

The Jacksonville, Alabama native embodies the rural south through and through, and his lyrics reflect it. He played quarterback at Jacksonville State before pursuing a music career, and released his debut album, “Different ‘Round Here,” in September 2019.

Riley Green (Rick Diamond/Getty Images)

Green’s sound is more traditional than Combs but less than Pardi, and his unapologetic songwriting has contributed to his popularity, despite some negative publicity.

Green is the underdog in the race for country music stardom, and although he may never achieve the walloping chart numbers of Combs and Wallen, he’s here to stay throughout the 20s.

MUSIC: Tyler Childers surprises country music world with protest album

photo: Tyler Childers/Hickman Holler Records

By Jeff Uveino

Tyler Childers made his message clear in the words that he sang and the words that he spoke.

The 29-year-old country singer from Lawrence County, Kentucky released a surprise album on Sept. 18, and in its aftermath, left some fans rejoicing, some furious, and some scratching their heads.

The album, titled “Long Violent History,” replicates the sound of Childers’ previous music catalogue, filled with strings and little artificial production.

Eight of the album’s nine tracks are instrumentals. It’s the title track, however, strategically placed at the end of the record, that makes this rising star of rural Appalachia an unlikely defender of social justice and the Black Lives Matter movement.

“How many boys could they haul off this mountain, shoot full of holes, cuffed and layin’ in the streets,” Childers cries in his powerful, gruff cadence. “‘Til we come into town in a stark ravin’ anger, looking for answers and armed to the teeth?”

Empathy. That’s Childers’ message.

Fully aware of his predominantly white, rural fan base, Childers presents his plea for justice in a way that his listeners can relate to.

“Thirty-ought-sixes, papaw’s old pistol, how many, you reckon, would it be, four or five,” he continues. “Or would that be the start of a long, violent history of tucking our tails as we try to abide?”

To make sure that his message didn’t get twisted or misinterpreted, Childers released a video on Twitter to accompany the album.

“(The album) is a collection of instrumental pieces intended to create a sonic soundscape for the listener to set the tone to reflect on the last track, which is my observation piece on the times we are in,” Childers said. “COVID has been a strain on all of us in some form or fashion… all the while, we have witnessed violent acts of police brutality happen around the nation that have not been addressed.”

Childers continues by asking his “white rural listeners” to do a self-examination on the matter.

“I venture to say that if we were met with this type of daily attack on our own people, we would take action in a way that hasn’t been seen since the battle of Blair Mountain in West Virginia,” Childers says. “If we wouldn’t stand for it, why would we expect another group of Americans to stand for it?”

He closes the video with an appeal to vote out the people who have “been in power and let this go unnoticed,” as well as a questioning of the morality of the Confederate flag.

The day the album and video were released, Childers began trending on Twitter, a space that is rarely taken up by country music artists. However, it is difficult to say whether his political stance will help or hurt the rising star’s career.

Childers has been one of the buzziest independent country artists of the past few years. His album “Country Squire,” released by his indy label Hickman Holler records in August 2019, reached No. 1 on the US country charts with virtually no radio airplay.

He was named “Emerging Artist of the Year” at the 2018 Americana Music Honors and Awards, and was nominated for a Grammy Award in 2020 for his performance of the second single off of County Squire, “All Your’n.”

Engulfing himself in modern-day politics is an audacious move for an up-and-coming artist who heavily relies on a rural, and presumably conservative, audience.

The sound of the album is rock-solid. The 32-minute retreat to the hollers of Kentucky that Childers hails from is loaded with fiddle and mandolin, and features a sound that replicates bluegrass as much as it does country.

Other than a few sparse stomps, slaps and timpani rolls, there is no percussion on the album. If it were released half a century ago, it would likely be called a “fiddling record.”

Childers’ fanbase cannot fault his sound, as he has stayed true to his Appalachian roots with each of his projects thus far.

Will his accompanying message, however, turn conservative fans away? Or will it draw in new fans from outside the genre and continue his momentum?

Either way, Childers has made it clear where he stands. And it’s hard to deny his authenticity.