5. Lightnin' Hopkins, "Merry Christmas Baby"
Besides Townes Van Zandt, who we wish had recorded the world's most melancholy Christmas album, Lightnin' is probably Houston's most critically exalted hometown artist. Lightnin' was born in East Texas but he died in Houston, and in between he became widely thought of as the greatest blues guitarist ever.
Lightnin' recorded a handful of incredible holiday songs like "Santa" and "Merry Christmas," and we've been listening to his version of "Merry Christmas Baby," co-written by Texas City native Charles Brown and available on the above 1991 Rhino compilation Blue Yule: Christmas Blues and R&B Classics, all week.
4. Tex Ritter, "Christmas Carols by the Old Corral"
Tex Ritter recorded a bunch of great Christmas songs, but the 45 rpm "Christmas Carols by the Old Corral" was a No. 2 hit in 1945. Before moving to Nashville, and before giving the world the late, great John Ritter (of Jack and Chrissy fame) Tex got his start in radio here on Houston's KPRC. He wrote some of our favorite hardcore honky-tonk titles, such as "You Two-Timed Me One Time Too Often" and "You Will Have To Pay," but also had church-cred enough to record the gospel album Psalms.
Tex went to law school at University of Texas and appeared on Broadway as an actor, but was primarily known as a singing cowboy in the movies and recorded quite a few holiday songs. While "Christmas Carols by the Old Corral" was a huge hit, we also recommend "Is There a Santa Claus" and our current favorite, "Merry Christmas Polka."
3. Mickey Gilley, Christmas at Gilley's
Mickey Gilley will probably always be known best for Gilley's in Pasadena, the world's largest honky-tonk bar (which happened to bear his name). Locals still remember the night John Travolta arrived at Gilley's Club by helicopter to shoot scenes for Urban Cowboy. But much more than just a honky-tonk proprietor, Gilley was also once one of the biggest country stars in the world.
We weren't old enough to have visited the original Gilley's, but listening to our favorite track from this album, "Honky Tonk Christmas," we like to hit ourselves over the head with a beer bottle and pretend we're there.
2. Kenny Rogers, Once Upon a Christmas
Kenny Rogers has the most full-length Christmas albums of any of these artists, which got us to thinking. He's certainly a jolly chap, with white hair, white beard and a curious preoccupation with Christmas. Could it be? Is he? Santa Claus?
Our favorite of his many Christmas albums is Once Upon a Christmas, his 1984 duet album with Dolly Parton. The album includes Dolly's "Hard Candy Christmas," but sadly the cover art, in which Dolly seems to be dressed as Mrs. Claus, is the only unnatractive photo we've ever seen of her.
1. Willie Nelson, Pretty Paper
We saved the best for last. Willie made more than one full-length studio Christmas album, but for our Christmas money, Pretty Paper remains the gold standard by which all Christmas albums must be judged. (Apologies to the original Alabama Christmas album.)
Most of the album is classic/standard Christmas songs sung in Willie's tender, spare style with minimal instrumentation, but the title track is a Willie original which he wrote for Roy Orbison in 1963. Roy's version reached No. 15 on the charts back then, and when it was released in 1979, Willie's album was a No. 11 hit on the country charts back when being No. 11 on the country charts meant something.
Jumping into Willie Nelson's discography of 66 studio albums (and counting) can be daunting, but Pretty Paper is typical of his best tendencies and a great way to get into his music.
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One last reminder that Nelson plays tonight and tomorrow night at the Grand 1894 Opera House in Galveston -- ed.