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Michael Bialas

Michael Bialas

Posted: December 22, 2009 02:35 PM

Do you hear what I hear?

All that clatter must have something to do with last-minute packing by Santa and his elves. If there's a chance they forgot about the iPod-wielding, country-music loving member of your household, consider picking up these stocking stuffers worthy of some Christmas cheer. And you'll bring joy to their world without even needing to spike the eggnog.

Whether you want more Country in your Christmas, or more Christmas in your Country, here are three 'tis the season reasons to get into a festive mood.

Walking in a Winter Sugarland
Sugarland has reason to celebrate, and not just because it's the holiday season. The dynamic duo of Jennifer Nettles and Kristian Bush spent the year touring the country, often supporting Keith Urban on the "Escape Together World Tour" as one of the most impressive warm-up acts in country music.

Carol call: Gold And Green, Sugarland's first holiday album (Mercury Nashville), includes five original songs among the 10 selections that total 36 minutes.

Yule play it because ... Visions of Sugarland are still dancing in your head, so this goes to the top of your holiday wish list. Nettles and Bush have fun with a jaunty "Winter Wonderland" (including a honky-tonk piano played by Bush's brother Brandon) and faithfully cover traditional Christmas spirituals like "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel" and "Silent Night," with Nettles even singing a verse in Spanish. But new numbers like the opening "City Of Silver Dreams" and the gospel-infused "Coming Home" are what bring a fresh scent to this seasonal ritual. While appearances by members of their touring band (including Brandon on keyboards and Annie Clements on background vocals) and formidable Nashville session players (guitarist Dan Dugmore, bassist Glenn Worf) deliver a fair country flair, Sugarland continues to expand. So does their audience, thanks to this genre-bending sound. Even Bush, often the figurative second fiddle to Nettles' charismatic presence and throaty vocals, gets a chance to break out in song on "Holly Jolly Christmas" and a folkie "Maybe Baby (New Year's Day)." There are also some bonus goodies for album buyers throughout the rest of the month.

Ring in the new: Even with a slot in this summer's Lilith Fair, it might be impossible for Sugarland to top 2009. They became a force with Live On The Inside, a CD/DVD set of live tracks that was bolstered by the group's first network television special. A performance on TNT's Christmas in Washington, two appearances on Oprah (the November 30 holiday extravaganza with Jennifer Hudson has an encore showing December 23) and Nettles' salute to Bruce Springsteen on The 32nd Annual Kennedy Center Honors (December 29, CBS) are among the holiday highlights that can only lead to a Happy New Year for this solid Gold (And Green) pairing. Meanwhile, Nettles gives a shout-out and sends "traveling mercies" on the album's liner notes to her brother Seth, who is deployed to Afghanistan during the holidays.

Sara's Southern Comfort and Joy
Sexy Sara Evans continues to tour, but her life is much less hectic since the days she rivaled Shania Twain and Faith Hill as one of country's hottest female stars. The RCA Nashville platinum-selling artist seems more comfortable singing God Bless America at the Major League Baseball All-Star Game than she does attempting the Paso Doble on Dancing With The Stars.

After going through a messy public divorce, the Missouri-born Evans has settled down in Birmingham with second husband Jay Barker, a former Alabama quarterback, and their Brady Bunch-like family. Evans just completed the "Celebrate the Season" tour, giving her a chance to bring Christmas music, along with a few of her country hits, to casino crowds and smaller arenas throughout the West.

Carol call: I'll be Home For Christmas is a digital collection of four tracks previously heard on other artist projects that's available at online sites such as iTunes and amazon.com for $3.99.

Yule play it because ... Evans has always been a music traditionalist and, although she no longer lives in Nashville, her sound continues to capture the down-homeyness of a woman seemingly devoted to the Southern way of life. The title track and "O Come All Ye Faithful" are treated with the proper respect and solemn dignity they deserve, while she kicks it up a notch for the Bible-toting "Go Tell It On the Mountain" before closing it out with the lone original. "New Again," a reverential hymn she co-wrote and performs with Brad Paisley, profoundly puts the meaning of Christmas in the proper perspective.

Ring in the new: Although Evans cowrote and recorded a new single in 2009, "Feels Just Like a Love Song," there's no word yet on when her first studio album since 2005 will be released. But after writing her first novel, The Sweet By and By (Thomas Nelson), she's likely to be on the promotional trail a lot in 2010, beginning with book signings in Nashville and New York, then a scheduled appearance with the women of The View on January 13.

Equal time for Joey+Rory
As a musical team, husband/wife duo Joey+Rory are relatively new to the Nashville scene. The couple auditioned for Can You Duet on Country Music Television in early 2008 en route to placing third in the finals. After signing a record deal with Vanguard/Sugar Hill and releasing their debut album, The Life Of A Song later that year, they held on to their day jobs. Joey Martin, left, is a co-owner and waitress at Marcy Jo's Mealhouse, a restaurant about 45 minutes south of Nashville that she runs with her sister-in-law; Rory Feek, right, is an award-winning songwriter on Music Row (Blake Shelton's "Some Beach," Clay Walker's "The Chain of Love" are among several hits) and founder of Giantslayer Records. The pair were nominated in 2009 as Top Vocal Duo by the Academy of Country Music and Vocal Duo of the Year by the Country Music Association. 

Carol call: "It's Christmas Time" is a single the couple made available for 99 cents on iTunes and amazon.com. The mid-tempo song is filled with fiddles and guitars, along with simple but relatable lyrics about the holidays: "... Can't believe it's already here / ain't bought a single thing, Oh dear / I'm so far behind." During a visit with Martin's family in Indiana, it was written by Feek, a Marine Corps veteran who asks to "say a prayer for all the soldiers over there."

Joey+Rory also teamed up with The Song Trust, a collaborative group founded in Nashville that emphasizes the songwriter instead of the singer, to put together a 12-song children's album called Merry Kidsmas. The project, produced by Feek and Tim Johnson, developed out of the successful 2007 release of a weeper sung by an anonymous 6-year-old girl. Called "Bring Him Home Santa," the little letter writer tells St. Nick that she would gladly give up the Barbie doll and soccer ball on her Christmas list to see her military dad home for the holidays.

Yule play it because ... If you're thinking like Scrooge and aren't ready to hear the precocious sounds of little angels singing, at least buy Merry Kidsmas ($9.99 on iTunes, $9.49 on amazon.com) for your young children. Surely, they'll enjoy the too-cute "Box of Rocks," about a tattletale who recommends to Santa the perfect gift for her brother who's been "bad a lots." Along with nine original songs written by The Song Trust, there are new takes on "(All I Want For Christmas is My) Two Front Teeth," "Wudolph (the Red Nosed Reindeer)" and the "Little Drummer Boy." Portions of the sales go to charity, including the USO, and you'll benefit by staying in a benevolent mood ... at least for the rest of the year.

Ring in the new: Joey+Rory, who have two daughters (Heidi and Hopie), will celebrate their eighth anniversary on June 15.  Expect more accolades for the happy couple, who have been named one of 2009's top 10 new artists by CMT. Thus far, there are only a couple of appearances scheduled for early 2010, including January 23 at Marcy Jo's anniversary party, where one lucky contestant+1 can attend if chosen in a sweepstakes drawing sponsored by cmt.com.

Extras
• Check out Denver concert photos of Sugarland's opening, Keith Urban's headline performance and Sara Evans' summer set at Elitch Arena.

 

Follow Michael Bialas on Twitter: www.twitter.com/mjbialas