Reba McEntire,
Merry Christmas to You
(MCA, 1995)

I've never come across a Christmas album quite like this -- before or since -- so it makes this one particularly special. Traditional country singers have often recorded Christmas albums, but they invariably dress them up in some way to make them acceptable to a wider audience than their usual releases. This is understandable, because Christmas often brings together people with different musical tastes, and singers want to appeal to as many as possible.

Reba recorded this album during her "traditional" phase in the mid-'80s. Like the other albums she recorded around that time, there is plenty of steel and fiddles, but absolutely no compromises to pop crossover -- that came later (including her second Christmas album, The Secret of Giving).

The first two tracks were recorded for possible inclusion in the brilliant Tennessee Christmas compilation (now available as a bargain priced CD). "Away in a Manger" was selected, while "On This Day" remained in the vaults until the rest of this album was recorded a year or two later.

In my school days, I used to think "Away in a Manger" was really boring, but it seems to inspire country singers, none more so than Reba and her musicians. Despite stiff competition, Reba's version is my favorite cover of this song. How did I ever think it was boring? There are five other classics here, each very distinctive from any other versions. The other tracks are also brilliant, but the one that sticks in the mind the most is "The Christmas Guest," a narration co-written and first recorded by Grandpa Jones. For most of the song, it's a real weepie, though the ending is happy. It's very moving.

Throughout, the musicians are in superb form and help to make this album what it is -- one of a kind, and likely to remain so. Thank you, Reba.

- Rambles
written by Peter D. Harris
published 13 December 2003

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