Festive Kenny and Dolly's Once upon a Christmas Remains Meaningful, too
by Kristin Battestella
A year after Eyes That See in the Dark and their “Islands in the Stream” duet success, Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton re-teamed for the multi-platinum 1984 Once upon a Christmas, a short session nonetheless brimming with country cozy pop and spiritual touches.
County guitar rifts open I Believe in Santa Claus as Kenny and Dolly alternate on the lighthearted magic, hearth, and honesty. Initially, this doesn't seem like a December tune, however, the down home spirit stirs as religious lyrics and children's choirs join the seasonal fun keeping Once upon a Christmas catchy even if you don't like country. Dolly is likewise pleasant and countryside comforting in bringing the casual snowy mountain feeling to Winter Wonderland/Sleigh Ride. Extra beats and Tennessee twang add to the combination arrangement before the ad libs go out with some eighties groovy that could have been both songs in full rather than a quick three and a half minutes. The upbeat tempo of Christmas Without You belies the sophisticated lyrics as Kenny and Dolly create a mood of snug sweaters and fireside romance. This melancholy mixed with merriment has adult maturity as well as casual, able to sing along hooks. It's pop, it's easy on the ear, and it was a hit single, naturally.
The synthesizer notes feel slightly unnecessary for Kenny's first slower ballad The Christmas Song, but fortunately, his soft gruff builds as the verses escalate to the big long held notes. Once upon a Christmas is a short thirty-five minutes with only ten tracks of mostly new holiday songs, which is unusual since there are plenty of fun and familiar holiday tunes that would have fit in with the jovial, breezy A Christmas to Remember. Edgy jazz beats accent Kenny and Dolly's rhymes of fireside memories and Tahoe skiing. This is a fun snowball fight wrapped up in the adult simmer after – an easy listening single very of its time. However the maturity also feels quite contemporary for today's holiday radio play before the fast paced, get thee to the holiday hoe down of With Bells On. The toe tapping jingle mixed with Kenny and Dolly's duet style adds to the sing a long mood of Once upon a Christmas. Us listeners are welcome to join in as our stars have room to break out and harmonize, creating a good time Christmas feeling.
Next, Kenny adds some Spirit of the Season balladry with Silent Night. Surprisingly, the music seems louder than Kenny when it shouldn't be, but this is an older CD that may not be well mixed compared to digital sound. Fortunately, Kenny's raspy melody fits perfectly with the humble notes before one more big reverent refrain. Again, Once upon a Christmas may have benefited by having more of these tender, country carols. The subdued seasonal imagery continues with The Greatest Gift All. Kenny and Dolly mix candlelight romance and snowy love with church bells, peace on earth, and gospel accents for a shrewd single combining the suave pop and spiritual tender. Dolly also has the chance to take it slow with White Christmas, providing the session with some penultimate holiday nostalgia before the eponymous finale Once upon a Christmas. A spoken account of baby Jesus opens Kenny and Dolly's longest track before somber notes retell the story of the manger, gifts from three wise men, and the king come at last. Rather than being out of place compared to the holiday happy golly gee dominating Once upon a Christmas, this topper brings the spiritual sprinkled throughout the session to the forefront, reminding one and all of the reason behind the snowy country happiness.
A more reverent session can be found in Kenny Rogers' The Gift, and Dolly Parton takes on more classic carols in 1990's Home for Christmas. With so many original compositions on Once upon a Christmas, it helps to look up the lyrics, as many of the songs sound alike. This session plays like one long concert – which of course worked back then with Kenny and Dolly's accompanying television special. Fortunately, Once upon a Christmas takes multiple listens to pick up all the holiday happy and country catchy. Though slightly dated in its early eighties country crossover pop sound with nothing stand out or what one would call timeless, Once upon a Christmas remains a perennial feelgood listen all the same – a quick, lighthearted, and cozy festive for sentimental adults who remember Christmas then.