16 December 2012

Wynonna's A Classic Christmas

Wynonna’s Classic Christmas Just That
By Kristin Battestella

Wynonna, the dynamic daughter half of eighties country pop sensation The Judds, makes an utterly blissful holiday debut with this 2006 release, appropriately titled A Classic Christmas. With big notes, seasonal sway, and a fine mix of traditional sounds and new spin arraignments, one would never suspect the country ancestry behind this chart topper.

The Christmas Song sets the tone for A Classic Christmas with an easy, jazzy, and festive feeling. It’s mellow, but full of holiday memories and timeless sound. Wynonna has a few long notes and room to stretch the rhythm and it all works wonderfully. Winter Wonderland continues the sophisticated style with the snowy echoes and fun bells.  It’s happy, even jolly, but also mature, adult, and not in your face one bit. This is a very pleasant listen indeed, but White Christmas is dynamite, too. No big production values are needed here- in fact, A Classic Christmas sounds like a quiet, intimate studio session with a few musicians and lots of egg nog. The melodies are dinner for two friendly even if you can hear a hint of country in some of Wynonna’s lyrics here. We’re only three songs into A Classic Christmas, and already there’s no doubt about Wynonna’s sentimental capability.

Nay, it’s quite the contrary.  I’ll Be Home for Christmas doesn’t sound like the country Wynonna some might have expected. I’m not a country fan myself, but Wynonna almost sounds like a soulful black singer from the sixties, with big, deep notes, total heart, and gospel. I can’t think of another way to say it, but I absolutely mean that as a compliment. There are shades of Ella and Mahalia on A Classic Christmas, and it keeps the set both modern and contemporary cool for today’s urbane listener and very old school traditional debonair at the same time. On a random radio listen, one might very well take pause and question in what year these songs were made. For a holiday album needing a perennial shelf life, this is the golden ticket.  Santa Claus Is Coming to Town adds an upbeat jingle with kids singing along in a fun moment for the whole family. Fortunately, this isn’t as hokey and overdone as most child tracks are. It’s not bad, but a bit unlike anything else on the album. Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas returns to the refined style with a fresh opening and melancholy interludes. The expected bittersweet is excellent, simply put. I’ve no doubt Wynonna could have gone bigger with these secular staples. However, the fact that she keeps these tunes easy on the ears but vocally solid and strong note in and note out is so refreshing amid this century’s new wave of, well, singers who can’t actually sing. All that electronic voice box crap- give me someone who can carry a Christmas tune and put an amen to it!

Like the albums of Yuletide yore, Wynonna saves the spiritual and carols for the second half of A Classic Christmas and starts the reverence off big with Ave Maria. You would not know this woman is not a Catholic opera trained Italian soprano who speaks Latin on a regular basis.  No production spectacle or orchestral take over is needed here. The hefty notes are retained and yet Wynonna keeps this lofty ode a soft, respectful lullaby.  The church choir comes out next to introduce O Come, O Come Emmanuel and the combination keeps this brooding medieval anticipatory seasonably solid. The somber instruments and grand but personal, quivering delivery would seem fit for a rousing Christmas Eve candlelight service. However, Wynonna creates an edgy household appeal and modern arraignment in ye spirit of olde. Though its one of the longer tracks here, I wish more people could do this carol this way- the way it deserves. Although I could do without the way Wynonna says ‘yonder’ and this rendition isn’t as traditional as expected, O Holy Night starts slowly and sweetly rises accordingly in music, high notes, choir sounds, and perfection. Today it seems most pop or songsters don’t bother to do O Holy Night- probably because they can’t vocally- much less ad lib and update what we often take as a serious and brooding carol.  It’s hefty and reverent with all the works to the hilt, but again, Wynonna’s innocent, almost private, and intimate delivery is a very pleasing listen.

Likewise, Silent Night is slightly more upbeat than the norm, with almost a happy ring instead of somber reflection. It’s as if Wynonna has the kids sitting on the floor in the studio while she sings about a mom, a baby, and the smile they put on her face.  Sometimes we make the religious carols so depressing and too heart tugging. Particularly since the recent massacre in Connecticut, I keep thinking of the blissful yet tragic closing line here. All those children who are sleeping in heavenly peace instead of opening presents that were probably already lovingly wrapped and placed under the tree. Obviously, such horrific things at this supposedly peaceful time of year can irrevocably shake us up. Fortunately, the spiritual purpose of the season is the opposite of evil and sadness. It’s a birthday party for all here and above to attend.  Instead of concluding with Silent Night or some big secular spectacle, Wynonna finishes A Classic Christmas in strong spiritual fashion with It’s the Messiah.  Previously I’ve heard the track on Kenny Roger’s Christmas album The Gift- which also includes Wynonna’s Mary Did You Know duet.  While Kenny kept this ode soft and country easy swag, Wynonna slows it down for a meaningful church finale. It’s not so extravagant that you can’t sing along, but held lyrics and choir heights make the listener pay attention to the tale being told. We’re lifted up with the titular refrain, and this exiting number finishes A Classic Christmas with Wynonna’s big and wonderful, “He’s come at last!”

As I said, I’m no country lover, but severe country fans might actually dislike the absence of down home elements and country sounds on A Classic Christmas. With Wynonna Judd’s vocal range and crossover capabilities, this could have been a much more grandiose album, too. Just based on the number of big and difficult carols in need of Wynonna’s vocals, this could have easily been a double album or box set. Marketability and sale pricing had something to do with that, I’m sure. However, this surprising and unexpected holiday delight is consistent throughout, and I hope Wynonna does another Christmas album soon. The titular class and sophistication cross musical genres and season spirits. This very pleasant and feel good listen doesn’t skimp on the music and the meaning and is perfect for the dinner table, a family activity night in, the car, or office. If you like Christmas music and the women who can carry a serious and refined tune, forget country.  Forget needing to like The Judds. Even if you never hear anything else by Wynonna ever again, get this Christmas album ASAP. 

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