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Musgraves Mixes Melancholy And Melodies On 'A Very Kacey Christmas'

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Every year sees the release of Christmas albums and singles by pop music artists. The tradition goes back decades, sometimes yielding big hits, including Bing Crosby's "White Christmas," Elvis Presley's "Blue Christmas" and Alvin and the Chipmunks "Christmas Don't Be Late." Country Artist Kacey Musgraves has released a collection titled "A Very Kacey Christmas." Rock critic Ken Tucker has a review.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HAVE YOURSELF A VERY LITTLE CHRISTMAS")

KACEY MUSGRAVES: (Singing) Have yourself a very little Christmas. Let your heart be light. From now on, our troubles will be out of sight. Have yourself...

KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: Kacey Musgraves leads off her "Very Kacey Christmas" album with that imaginative interpretation of "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas." It's keening pedal steel guitar complementing Musgrave's fulsome crooning. Musgraves has made her reputation as a singer and writer of tart working-class country songs ever since her first album, 2013's "Same Trailer, Different Park."

On this album, she digs into Elvis Presley "Blue Christmas" territory with such melancholy songs as this original composition, "Christmas Makes Me Cry."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHRISTMAS MAKES ME CRY")

MUSGRAVES: (Singing) It's all red and gold and Nat King Cole and tinsel on the tree. It's all twinkle and snowy nights and the kids still believe. And I know that they say, have a happy holiday. And every year, I sincerely try. Oh, but Christmas, it always makes me cry.

TUCKER: A Christmas album would be too glum if it didn't include a few novelty songs, and "A Very Kacey Christmas" is fully stocked with those. But Musgraves had a very bright idea in doing a version of "Christmas Don't Be Late," better known to baby boomers as "The Chipmunk Song" released in the late 1950s by the high-pitched voices of Alvin and the Chipmunks, created by songwriter Ross Bagdasarian. Musgraves takes this chirpy little tune, which was conceived to get laughs by being irritating, and sings it straight, turning it into a pretty waltz.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHRISTMAS DONT BE LATE")

MUSGRAVES: (Singing) Christmas, Christmastime is near. Time for tears and time for cheer. I've been good but I can't last. Hurry Christmas, hurry fast. Want a plane that loops the loop and I want a hula hoop. I can hardly stand the wait. Please Christmas, don't be late.

TUCKER: Musgraves is not resistant to devising her own novelty material. You get the feeling that once she came up with the phrase a willie nice Christmas, it was only a matter of time before she put in a call to Willie Nelson to get his blessing and a backup vocal to put the finishing touches on this woozy tune about, quote, "staying higher than the angel on the top of the tree."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "A WILLIE NICE CHRISTMAS")

MUSGRAVES: (Singing) I'm going to wrap my presents up in red bandanas and leave some special cookies out for Santa. Throw my troubles to the wind till we're back on the road again. Here's to finding your own little peace on earth. And I hope you have a really, a really, really, Willie nice Christmas if you're in Luckenbach or Waikiki. I hope you have a really, a really, really Willie nice Christmas.

KACEY MUSGRAVES AND WILLIE NELSON: (Singing) And may we all stay higher than the angel on the top of the tree.

WILLIE NELSON: (Singing) Don't get caught up...

TUCKER: The high point of this collection is another new original song, "Ribbons And Bows." Arranged to sound like a 1960s girl group song, it finds Musgraves singing through handclaps and a saxophone riff to achieve a harder edge than most nostalgia-tinged holiday songs.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RIBBONS AND BOWS")

MUSGRAVES: (Singing) I don't need ribbons and bows to cure my woes. No, I just need your love. Expensive rings or diamond things, no, I just need your love. Don't get me wrong, shiny new Mercedes would look nice in my driveway. Or a roundtrip ticket for a long vacation on a big fancy jet plane. There's only one thing that I want, baby, it's hard to find and it's already mine. I don't need ribbons and bows...

TUCKER: There's real artistic development in evidence on "A Very Kacey Christmas." Musgrave's vocals on her earlier albums can sometimes sound thin or a bit strained. She was inventive in using her limitations to dramatize emotional stress. On this album, however, Musgraves has become a much more confident vocalist. Listen to the way she takes command of Frank Loesser's 1947 song "What Are You Doing New Year's Eve?"

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHAT ARE YOU DOING NEW YEAR'S EVE?")

MUSGRAVES: (Singing) When the bells are ringing and the horns all blow and the couples that we know are finally kissing, will I be with you or will I be among the missing? Maybe it's much too early in the game, oh, but I thought I'd ask you just the same, what are you doing New Year's, New Year's Eve? Wonder whose arms...

TUCKER: Most Christmas albums are throwaway work, executed quickly for some holiday cash as background music as you trim the tree and swill eggnog. With A Very Kasey Christmas, however, Kacey Musgraves has made the rare Christmas album that can be listened to closely from start to finish with both pleasure and admiration.

DAVIES: Ken Tucker is critic-at-large at yahoo.com. He reviewed Kacey Musgraves' new album "A Very Kacey Christmas." On tomorrow's show, fake news in the presidential election. We'll speak with BuzzFeed media editor Craig Silverman, who spent years writing about accuracy in media. He'll tell us why teenagers in a small town in Macedonia run websites spinning tall tales about American politics and why so many of us are willing to believe stories that aren't true. Hope you can join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our senior producer is Roberta Shorrock. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Ann Marie Baldonado, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, John Sheehan, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden and Mooj Zadie. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.