Kacey Musgraves continues to follow her arrow. In 2013, she built her reputation as an antidote to all that was said to be ailing country music: a traditionalist of unobtrusively twangy arrangements and a credible small-town Texas background, who was also slyly progressive in her down-home narratives. She cowrote Miranda Lambert’s deliciously vengeful mini-masterpiece “Mama’s Broken Heart” and released her own major-label debut, Same Trailer Different Park, which beat out Taylor Swift and the genre’s swaggering bros to win the Best Country Album Grammy. In 2015, she released Pageant Material; that record didn’t go big, it went home, eschewing radio-friendly hits to double down gorgeously on the gentle, folksy nuance of its predecessor. It opened at No. 1 but didn’t sell as well overall.
Its follow-up, A Very Kacey Christmas, is yet another left turn from Musgraves. The third album is pretty early in an artist’s catalog for a holiday record, but she throws herself into this one as wholeheartedly as any proper LP. Her great epiphany is the short distance between rhinestones and aluminum trees, how what once was considered tacky and artificial can, with time, come to seem nostalgic and real. Musgraves’ album summons up the mid-’60s era nostalgia of A Charlie Brown Christmas, gliding naturally from her established Western-swing throwback aesthetic to kitschy exotica and vintage pop, with an expertly curated song selection that leans on campy novelties, classy standards, and a stocking’s worth of originals.
Because our Christmas recordings pile up over the years, to be dusted off with the other decorations for a few weeks and then put back in their boxes, they may be one of the few types of albums many people still play in full. The sequencing of A Very Kacey Christmas exploits this advantage. Musgraves doesn’t rush her conceit, opening elegantly but conventionally with cello and pedal steel on “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” followed by a sleigh bells- and fiddle-accented “Let It Snow” with fellow Western swingers the Quebe Sisters. She shows her hand next on—of all things!—a polka-like cover of “Christmas Don’t Be Late,” a/k/a “The Chipmunk Song.” Replacing the cartoon characters’ irritating high-pitched voices with Musgraves’ crystalline effortlessness (and ditching the “ALVIN!!!” banter) renders this familiar bit of silliness deeply affecting; when Musgraves sings, “I still want a hula-hoop,” it’s with the poignancy of a adult yearning for all that she didn’t get in Christmases past.
The other non-originals are cut from similarly elvin-green cloth, and they’re thoroughly enjoyable if less revelatory. Musgraves salvages “I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas,” an oft-annoying mid-century gag record, gamely singing about not wanting “rhinoceroses-es.” She delivers an effectively restrained “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” with children chiming in with schoolyard backing vocals. Elsewhere, Musgraves lets the band’s instrumental prowess shine in a nimble, mariachi-flavored “Feliz Navidad.” Another song about various cultural ways of saying merry Christmas, the Hawaiian ditty “Mele Kalikimaka,” piles on the pedal steel, with the Quebe Sisters returning on close-knit harmonies. Ending with a woozy “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?”—capped by a snatch of “Auld Lang Syne” on piano, around a hearth of ambient chatter—feels obvious but fitting, like watching It’s a Wonderful Life on Christmas Eve.
The four originals here vary in their success, “A Willie Nice Christmas,” if you’ll forgive a pun (and you’ll have to) is Musgraves’ weed-heavy holiday reunion with Willie Nelson, whose 1965 song “Are You Sure” she rebooted with him on Pageant Material. It is hardly essential, but notable for merely existing: Musgraves, who once sang, “I’m always higher than my hair,” name-checks “On the Road Again” and hopes “we’ll all stay higher than the star at the top of the tree,” as Nelson genially reminds us not to get so stressed. “Present Without a Bow,” which features Musgraves’ fellow classicist Leon Bridges, reaches for the holiday soulfulness of a song like Charles Brown’s “Please Come Home for Christmas,” but it doesn’t quite cohere. “Ribbons and Bows,” an upbeat hand-clapper in the Ronettes and Darlene Love mode, feels like a potential single, with “All I Want for Christmas Is You”-style lyrics channeled through Musgraves’ eye for what “the ladies [down] at the hair salon” will say.
The real gift here is “Christmas Makes Me Cry,” a gut-punching acoustic ballad that Musgraves cowrote with Brandy Clark and Shane McAnally. While another country star with crossover ability, Dolly Parton, sang about keeping a stiff upper lip in her “Hard Candy Christmas,” Musgraves confides now that Nat King Cole, starry-eyed kids, and “seeing mom and dad get a little grayer” each year never fails to bring tears to her eyes. “Another year gone by/Just one more that I/I couldn’t make it home,” she sings. For all her retro leanings, she wisely chooses to sing about contemporary people trying our damndest to be cheerful and loving in a particularly hectic—and, often, sad and heavy—time of year. Getting a little misty-eyed around the holidays? Now that’s a sentiment everyone can appreciate, in any era.