Few artists can draw upon an esteemed artistic heritage to such as unassuming degree as Loretta Lynn does on the title track to her new “White Christmas Blue” album.
“I should be saying ho-ho-ho,” she sings with poker-faced seasonal resolve, “instead of boo-hoo-hoo.” Such a line would sink lesser country greats in a pit of country hokum, but not the Coal Miner’s Daughter. The tune, the only new original work on the recording, is a call for stylistic innocence, music forged when country heartbreak seemed more poetic than self pitying. It also typifies the highly vintage spirit, not to mention the ageless vocal grandeur, that effortlessly drives “White Christmas Blue.”
Lynn’s first set of seasonal music in 50 years is also the second entry in what is being called the Cash Cabin Recordings, an extensive library of new music overseen by producers Patsy Lynn Russell (Lynn’s daughter) and John Carter Cash (son of Johnny Cash) that has been the primary artistic focus of the country legend and Kentucky native in recent years. Like “Full Circle,” the series’ debut release issued earlier this year, “White Christmas Blue” is gloriously unadorned. While not as primal and revealing as Johnny Cash’s famed career-closing American Recordings series with Rick Rubin, it emphasizes essentials in ways even Lynn’s finer early works didn’t. There are no marquee-name guest appearances, no grandiose arrangements. Emphasized instead are vocals of surprisingly youthful clarity but still sagely assertive. Around them float contained arrangements that recall a simpler country era. It’s not a throwback to pre-bluegrass, Appalachian roots music, mind you, but to a 1960s era when country bore an unmistakable swing and twang of its own that was proud to stand outside of pop territory.
To that end, the pedal steel playing of Paul Franklin and Doug Jernigan are featured almost as prominently as Lynn’s singing. Jernigan is all over “Blue Christmas,” nudging Lynn to a sterling but studied honky-tonk feel that sounds like it was conjured in 1965. Likewise, veteran Nashville studio pro Franklin helps Lynn transform “Frosty the Snowman” into a grand two-step dance marathon, balancing swing against the crisp resonance of Lynn’s vocal lead.
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Lynn gets a touch reverential with the sacred material, which one has to suppose is her want. But she throws a curve ball with a reading of “Silent Night” that seems to glide with lightness and grace, providing this retro-inclined country Christmas card with a refreshing vitality that makes the music sound anything but antique.