You may not know it, but Kenny Rogers’ Christmas album is an astounding piece of performance art. Simply titled ‘Christmas’, it displays a self-confidence that reflects Rogers’ honest-to-goodness heartland values, an ebullience that nonetheless masks moments of great insight and vulnerability.
Rogers’ first Christmas album (for yes, we are blessed with four others and a best-of collection) is a product of 1981, a time in which a newly-elected Ronald Reagan offered hope to a nation battered by oil shocks, the Iranian hostage crisis and economic stagflation. A time when AIDS was on the horizon, Pope John Paul II had an attempt made on his life, and Greece entered the Economic Community. Some might say that a Christmas album by a three-time Grammy-winning country artist is hardly a medium in which to detect the beat of history, but could there be more here than meets the ear?
For instance, a soberly-rendered version of ‘My Favourite Things’ is immediately followed by a soaring rendition of ‘O Holy Night’ – a juxtaposition that seems to point to a concern with the tension between the material and the messianic, the everyday and the eternal. Or perhaps it is a paean to lost innocence, expressing the sentiment that ‘brown paper packages tied up with string’, once such a treasured possession, may now be of uncertain providence and indeed hint at the possibility of terrorism.
Rogers’ layering of meaning is masterfully understated. On first listen, ‘Christmas Is My Favourite Time of Year’ may appear to express a straightforward sentiment. But on each hearing, the opening line teases more possibilities – ‘How wise the wisemen must have been to find the child in Bethlehem’. Is there a suggestion here that the ‘wise’ men were in fact not so, that they had help? Or does he mean that they are wise because they recognized the guidance they received for what it was? Is the artist in fact offering us lessons here for the role of government in an individualistic society, a theme that would come to characterize the Reagan years? Rogers, coyly, doesn’t say. But the track is followed by ‘White Christmas’, which seems an odd inclusion given Rogers’ Texan heritage and in contrast to the rest of the album’s Americana (eg Kentucky Homemade Christmas). Perhaps Rogers is instead hinting here at Europe’s anxiety over Greece’s controversial entry to the community, the dreams of a ‘white’ Christmas an allusion to fears that they will no longer be ‘like the ones we used to know’.
At just 33 and a half minutes, Kenny Rogers’ ‘Christmas’ offers far too little chance to ponder such conundrums. How fortunate then that I have been blessed with the opportunity to listen to this album of such rich and extraordinary diversity over, and over, and over again, on loop, for the past week and a half. Rogers has been my constant companion in the office thanks to my colleague who, despite all the possibilities offered by recorded music, felt that this CD, and only this CD, was the right choice with which to fill the air. It was, I feel, the right decision. Rogers’ country drawl, heartland humility and Christian sentiment has provided both musical and spiritual accompaniment to my working hours. Each time the opening track rolls round I smile and, twitching only a little, think ahhh yes, truly it is ‘Christmas Everyday’. ◾