Jennifer Nettles and candy cane menChristmas hit Nashville in a big way this week, and not because any local retailers moved their Black Friday sales up even more than they've been pushed forward in the rest of the country.
No, it was a return of country-palooza, aka the second annual CMA Christmas special. With a lot of the staging and stars still upright in the Bridgestone Arena after the live telecast of the CMA Awards the night before, it makes sense to make additional use of those resources and knock off a two-hour holiday extravaganza—which ABC will air Dec. 1.
We know who wasn't out late partying the night before: everyone who showed up at the arena and provided air-tight harmonies or slick guitar licks on Christmas chestnuts... including Sugarland (with Jennifer Nettles repeating her hosting stint from last year), Keith Urban, Faith Hill, Scotty McCreery, Lauren Alaina, Martina McBride, Little Big Town, Vince Gill, Amy Grant, Rascal Flatts, Darius Rucker, Brian Setzer, Brad Paisley, and Miss Piggy.
What, you say we didn't include Kellie Pickler on that "nice" list? Well, we're not so sure she didn't have a little too good a time the previous evening, since Pickler provided the most memorable moment of the night, inadvertantly. Faith Hill, Scotty McCreery, and Kellie PicklerThe finale was actually filmed first in front of the near-sellout crowd, presumably because some of the performers had to get back on a tour bus some time before the end of what turned out to be a three-and-a-half-hour taping. So the full cast was brought out in a long, long line to perform a group version of "Jingle Bells"--preceded by the warning that there'd been no time to rehearse the big number.
That quickly became evident, as everything that could go wrong in the number did. Several of the singers weren't ready when the time came to sing their two or three lines of "Bells." McCreery was ready, but his microphone was off. One guitar soloist could be heard but another seemed to be playing air guitar. Quickly, everyone was cracking up (which will explain the spontaneous-looking smiles in some of the accompanying photos). Finally, at the end of this catastrophic rendition of the song, it came time for Pickler to do her part. As the camera zoomed in on her, she looked like a deer unexpectedly caught in headlights... and, in a climactic bit of timing that felt like the capper to a good farce, she blurted out: "Oh, s---."
You had to be there, because you definitely will not see that on ABC.
Fortunately, the remaining numbers that did go right were good enough so as not to seem completely anticlimactic after that grand start.
The clear standout, musically, if not comedically: Faith Hill's reading of "Little Drummer Boy." That's one of the hoarier Christmas standards out there, but Hill made it feel like something new, singing it a cappella with a subtle vocal chorale that gradually grew in power till they seemed actually percussive. As corny as much of the rest of the night was, Hill and company made the audience briefly feel like they were in a concert hall for a program of superior sacred music.
Same for Amy Grant's rendition of "Mary's Song/Breath of Heaven," a modern standard that got its start on one of her own myriad Christmas albums. When hubby Gill joined in to harmonize on the last part of the medley, there wasn't much danger of any notes going astray, since these two perform together on a holiday tour every December.
Gill was a participant in that, as well. He joined Miss Piggy on "Baby, It's Cold Outside"--with the Muppet inevitably taking the seducer's role and Gill settling for the traditionally feminine role of the seductee. The first take ended with the porcine puppet and Gill making out... followed by an embarrassed Gill begging into his mic, "Please, if there's a God in heaven, let that be a wrap." (Mr. Amy Grant may not be the atheist of the family, since, despite his divine plea, he was forced to do a second take of the risque cross-species duet.)
No other artists on the bill had to slum quite so badly. Nettles was put in an arguably even more awkward position when she was joined by dancers wielding full-sized candy canes for a cover of Mariah Carey's "All I Want for Christmas," but the Sugarland singer is nothing if not completely game and ready to set aside her rock aspirations for a full-on, 1960s-variety-show-style production number.
Urban, as just about everyone knows, is on vocal rest before an upcoming operation on his throat, but it's a rest that allows for individual numbers, just not not full concerts. Early in the taping, he contributed a couple of guitar solos, and everyone thought that might be it for him. But he did eventually emerge and even set his guitar aside to take to a stool for a vocal of "The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting)"—not just for one take, but two (and let's hope his doctor doesn't tell him it was that retake that ruined him).
The recent Idol alumni were enormously popular with the audience, of course. McCreery surprised a teenaged Make-a-Wish girl before taking to the stage for his solo number, and a more-winsome-than-ever Lauren reeled off her "Grown-Up Christmas List" from amid a small crowd of onstage tots.
Jennifer Nettles, woman in redJennifer Nettles knocked "Silent Night" out of the park early on, wearing one of the more demure of the seeming thousand outfits she had for the proceedings. This was in contrast to a seemingly painted-on gold mini-dress she used as a presenter later on, or the bright red bodice and top hat during another number that made her look less like a Christmas celebrant than a cast member of a version of "Cabaret" set in Satan's lair.