Christmas records are a dime a dozen. Countless musical giants ─ from Bing Crosby to Mariah Carey ─ have spun gold with irrefutably timeless renditions of their favorite holiday standards. Truth be told, there is little territory that hasn’t already been covered. Yet Terri Clark’s self-produced It’s Christmas… Cheers! arrives as a welcome addition to the flourishing holiday pantheon, a collection so rustic, cozy, and fire-roasted.
A self-proclaimed Christmas freak, Clark resisted making the record for as long as she could, even surprising herself. Following her largely-overlooked 2018 studio release, Raising the Bar, Clark met with her manager, and he told her point-blank: “It’s time for you to make a Christmas album.”
She reluctantly agreed ─ but only if she could find a way to do it justice. Initially, she toyed with enlisting the Nashville Philharmonic Orchestra to add a sweeping string base. When her bass guitarist Clay Krasner played her a song he had produced, featuring The Time Jumpers, she knew exactly what she needed. So, she called up band leader Kenny Sears and soon set to work.
Once she had compiled a list of her favorite Christmas tunes, most lying outside of public domain, the two began plotting chart arrangements. What emerged from such a reliant and trusting collaboration were 10 songs oozing soul and charm. “Jingle Bells” blasts through the speakers with a giddy-up horn section (written and arranged by Tyler Summers), whereas “Silent Night,” starring Vince Gill, trickles with a crisp delicacy, and “Up on the Housetop” rumbles with an accordion croak (courtesy of Jeff Taylor). Along the way, Clark’s voice glides across the melodies with an enveloping warmth.
“The Time Jumpers gave it a little of the Vince Guaraldi feel, arrangement wise,” Clark tells American Songwriter over a recent phone call.
“The guitar solos have this Gretsch sound but it’s the Hollowbody electric, and it’s not overplayed. The songs are melodic but not following the melody of the song necessarily. It’s not busy or showboat-y. It’s old school,” she continues. “The piano solos…. I don’t have a lot of those on my mainstream records. In certain cases, you have to have it. And Christmas music is one of them. You need a grand piano. I’ve never had a record with so much piano on it.”
Clark laid down the album’s foundation last April, mounting two solid days of tracking, before her induction into the Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame. Tour dates immediately blew up, and so she put the record on hold until the winter months. “I was able to actually sing Christmas songs at Christmas time, which nobody gets to do,” she laughs. “I didn’t want to sing when I was vocally tired and beat-up from the road either. Then, it gave me time to live with the tracks and think about who would sound good on what. I knew I wanted guests.”
Her collaborators also include Pam Tillis and Suzy Bogguss, her Chicks with Hits tourmates, showing up on an angelic rendition of “Away in a Manger” to bookend the record. “We have just become like sisters, and I knew if I was going to have collaborations on this record, they had to be part of it,” Clark says. “My mom used to sing this to me when I was little. It was the one Christmas song I remember her sitting down with a guitar and actually singing. She sang the non-traditional melody, which is the one we sing on this record. I wanted to pay homage to my mom. Most people know the traditional melody, which is the one the fiddle players are playing. Pam, Suzy, and I thought it would be cool to cover both melodies in the same song.”
Gill’s contributions to “Silent Night” are nothing short of divine. “My engineer Aaron [Chmielewski] is really good at helping artists with performances, and he kept telling me to sing it softer and softer and softer. I said, ‘Aaron, I’m going to sound like Alison Krauss in a minute if I get any softer,’” she recalls, with a laugh. “That’s not a bad thing by any stretch. She can just sound so angelic and soft. That’s not my wheelhouse.”
“He was right. That was the way to deliver it. I wanted to hear one voice with me and not three-part harmony. Vince is so generous with his talent,” she adds.
A long-standing friend and champion, Gill, who first appeared on the demo version of Clark’s “The Inside Story” (surprisingly not making the album cut) for her self-titled debut, was quick to hop aboard. “I texted him and didn’t get an answer. Five seconds later, the phone rings and I’m in the bathtub. And I’m thinking, ‘I can’t not take this.’ I didn’t tell him where I was at the time. He said, ‘Yeah, I’ll come sing on your song.’ I said, ‘OK, great. I’ll email you.’ It was a little bit creepy,” says Clark, chuckling. “He never says no. It sounds so amazing with his voice on it. I kept having the engineer turn him up in the mix. I wanted people to know who it was.”
Dierks Bentley, with whom Clark joined on The Hot Country Knights’ “You Make It Hard” last year, shows up on the perky “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!” jingle. Strings and piano dazzle in the background, leaving their voices to gather together like mistletoe. “Well, I figured after ‘You Make It Hard,’ I could get Dierks to do about anything.I called in a favor. I admire his talents, and I love that he’s a risk taker and that ‘90s music is so important to him. We blend really well together, so it felt like a pretty natural duet.”
The lone original, “Cowboy Christmas” (featuring Ricky Skaggs) was written by Dave Gleason and Erin Enderlin, one of Clark’s go-to co-writers. “Erin has become like a sister to me, and she’s one of the best songwriters in Nashville,” she says. Enderlin pitched the song specifically for the record, and it seemed to fit the record’s mood and theme straight away.
It’s Christmas… Cheers! is as classic as the many records Clark grew up loving. Her favorite cheer-bringers ─ Nat King Cole, Vince Guaraldi, Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Lorrie Morgan (Merry Christmas from London was “my mother’s favorite Christmas record of all time,” she says), Kelly Clarkson, and Michael Buble ─ seem an unsuspecting guiding hand. Clark’s work nestles amongst such releases, while also carving out her own corner.
As one might imagine, Clark was flooded with childhood memories in spinning such magic. From “thinkinging about all the times we had family Christmases” to caroling around the neighborhood and performing on the local TV station at 18, the country icon gained a new appreciation for life and family. Appropriately, she dedicates the release to her late mother, who passed 10 years ago.
It’s Christmas… Cheers! rings special in another way. It marks Clark’s long-awaited return to Mercury Records, the label home at which she started with 1995’s self-titled debut. The Christmas album was already finished, and after a meeting at Universal, her manager broke the news that they wanted to distribute it. “I sat there and wept like a three year old. I could not believe it,” she admits.
Without giving too much away, Clark does expect to release one more project with Mercury. She teases, “I’m a legacy artist, so a lot of it has to do with working that catalog and revisiting some concepts around that. At this point in my career, I’ve released a lot of records and made a lot of new music. A lot of people don’t know about it. Once you’re out of the Top 10, and you’re not mainstream anymore, you go into the category of being a legacy artist. People want to come to your shows to hear your hit songs. Not everyone is looking for new music.”
But for now, she’s taking time to reassess her life and live in the moment. While she can’t tour this year, due to the ongoing pandemic, she’ll have plenty of time to push the Christmas record well into the future. “Christmas albums last for an artist’s lifetime ─ unless they want to make volume eight like the Oak Ridge Boys have,” she laughs. “I can work this record the rest of my life, long after COVID-19 is finished.”