Summer is finally over, and Dolly Parton is ready for Christmas. The country superstar released “A Holly Dolly Christmas” Oct. 2, her first holiday album since “Home For Christmas” in 1990.
With seven original songs and five covers, “A Holly Dolly Christmas” feels as though it’s straight out of a made-for-TV Christmas special in the best way possible. You can turn it on at any time and know exactly what’s going on and what to expect. There are classic holiday staples with a country twang, romantic duets and jingles fit for a Hallmark movie.
Parton often breaks character to speak directly to her listeners, like a narrator in a Rankin/Bass holiday feature. In case anyone was wondering why Parton would put out a Christmas album on the first weekend of October, she candidly explains her logic during a jazzy music break on the opening track “Holly Jolly Christmas.”
“Every year I love singin’ this song,” Parton says, “and I thought well, why not just do a whole album called ‘A Holly Dolly Christmas?’ So I did!” Doesn’t get much simpler than that.
Along with her goddaughter Miley Cyrus, Parton launches into “Christmas Is,” a heartfelt ballad about the true meaning of the Christmas: “It’s all about kindness / Love and compassion / Better to give than receive / That is a true fact / But those who don’t know that / Well, they are the poorest indeed.”
Parton has long been open about her first-hand knowledge of poverty, having grown up in a cabin in rural Tennessee as one of 12 children. If there’s anyone qualified to preach about gratitude and giving back during the holiday season, it’s Dolly Parton.
Cyrus isn’t the only one accompanying Parton on this album. Michael Bublé enters the scene for “Cuddle Up, Cozy Down Christmas,” a cheeky jazz bop about getting snowed in with a lover. Bublé’s suave baritone blends easily with Parton’s characteristic warble, backed by fluttery bass riffs and tinsley jingle bell percussion. It’s warm and marshmallow-sweet, the musical equivalent of a hot chocolate on a snowy evening.
“The Tonight Show” host Jimmy Fallon joins the party to turn Mariah Carey’s smash hit “All I Want for Christmas Is You” into a lively banjo-filled duet. Fallon’s excitement and admiration for Parton is palpable throughout the song.
“I love you Dolly, always have, always will,” Fallon says adoringly during the intro. “I can’t believe this is happening right now.”
The song came to fruition after Fallon asked Parton to sing the classic carol on his show, but the singer-songwriter didn’t know the lyrics.
“I felt so bad,” Parton told Billboard. “So I went and learned it and I was just going to put it on my album and then I went, ‘I’ll ask Jimmy Fallon to sing it with me!’ And he said yes. So I’m really excited about that.”
Parton also joins forces with country legend Willie Nelson for a tender rendition of “Pretty Paper,” originally penned by Nelson and made famous by Roy Orbison. In the background, a bluesy steel guitar trills a melancholy tune peppered with church bells. Parton’s interpretation is more overtly Christmas-y than Nelson or Orbison’s versions, and her high, clear vocals contrast nicely with Nelson’s mellow crooning.
Other duets include “Christmas Where We Are” with longtime friend Billy Ray Cyrus and “You Are My Christmas” with Parton’s younger brother, Randy Parton.
The record is punctuated with slower, more emotional songs like “Circle of Love,” and “Comin’ Home for Christmas.” The latter paints a picture of a family preparing for Christmas, with Parton pleading for them to save a seat for her as she makes her way home for the holiday. It’s nostalgic and a little bittersweet, especially since many families across the country may have to alter their plans to celebrate remotely during the pandemic.
The album closes out with Parton’s performance of “Mary, Did You Know?” It’s simultaneously stripped-down and glittery at the same time, in a way only Parton could pull off. A string arrangement swells and rises as a gospel choir slowly fills in, while Parton’s own tremulous vocals strengthen and reach for the cathedral rafters.
Societal convention dictates thou shalt not listen to Christmas music until after Thanksgiving, but nothing about this year has been normal. If you’re looking for an excuse to get your Christmas cheer on a few months early, consider this your permission slip. We’re in a pandemic. There are bigger things to worry about.
“A Holly Dolly Christmas” is available for streaming on Spotify, Apple Music and other streaming services.