How the Pandemic Influenced Country Christmas Music, and the Artists Behind It

How the pandemic influenced country Christmas music, and the artists behind it

Country, Holiday Music

12/5/2021 10:00:00 AM

How the pandemic influenced country Christmas music, and the artists behind it

The holiday music pile-on includes releases by Josh Turner, Brett Young, Pistol Annies, Steve Wariner, Cody Johnson and many more.

, an album that sort of defies the COVID trend.Johnson did not use downtime to make his album — in fact, he wedged it into his schedule only after he had recorded a double album, shot the documentaryDear Rodeo: The Cody Johnson Storyand relaunched his tour schedule. For the first time, he entrusted producer Trent Willmon to cut the tracks without him.

“I just literally didn’t have time to be there,” says Johnson. “I told Trent, ‘Let’s discuss the keys that I want to sing in. Let’s discuss the feel and the vibe that, in my opinion, they should have, and then go produce the album.’ When I got to just show up and sing, it was so much fun and it was just like, ‘Ok, boys, 10 tracks. There you go. It’s done.'”

But the pandemic did impact the album’s tone. The vast majority of the songs address family: from the nativity to the intimacy of the season to Merle Haggard’s “If We Make It Through December” and Willie Nelson’s “Pretty Paper,” material that examines men with family — or lack-of-family — problems. That reflects Johnson’s experience during the first COVID-era Christmas.

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“What we learned is ‘Turn the TV off, don’t worry about the records, don’t worry about radio placements, quit work, just turn it all off and focus on the good things,’ ” he says. “My wife and I aren’t going to be this young together forever. My parents aren’t always going to be around — [or] my grandparents. That’s what Christmas for me has turned into is that real focus on the things that really matter.”

Turner similarly has seen his work/family balance altered since March 2020.“For the last 20 years, every time I would get home from a trip, I just could not sit still,” he says. “I was always antsy. I was always ready to go somewhere, whether I was going out to eat or just walking around Target with no good reason to be there. During the pandemic, one of the best things that came out of that was that it kind of quelled that restless spirit in me, where I just really kind of discovered a peace and contentment that I don’t think I’ve had in the last 20 years.”

Tenpenny’s album, an expansion on a previous Christmas EP, was already scheduled, though it benefited from that same low-key reality. Two of the new songs arrived because he was bored during downtime in July, but he generated songs that are generally upbeat in spirit.

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“I wanted to write it a little differently,” he says. “I call it ‘sexy Christmas.’ It’s just having a little fun, stuff you can turn on and not take so seriously. A lot of Christmas music is really serious, for some reason. I just wanted it to be something very lighthearted and fun.”

Though tragic in the big picture, the pandemic allowed Tenpenny to give the project his full attention.“Christmas was important to me,” he says. “A lot of artists wait a long time, but I started pretty early. I love the record. I feel like we got some timeless stuff there that can last for a good while.”

While the country Christmas albums help create the sense of a typical, festive holiday, they arrive at a time when the world is not normal. Risks remain, particularly for the unvaccinated, and Ewing hopes people don’t allow pandemic fatigue to override caution.

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“There are a lot of things in our human existence that we know are dangerous, that we work to protect ourselves from, and this one happens to be a high percentage of deadly,” he says. “I don’t take that lightly anytime.”

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