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John DenverUnlike many musicians, John Denver (read more) took Christmas seriously. His Christmas albums - all four of them - were not afterthoughts. Records like Rocky Mountain Christmas (1975) were no bits of fluff to fulfill consumer expectations or rescue a failing career - or cash in on the annual holiday bonanza. Rather, Denver's Christmas records (the first two especially) were undertaken during the prime of his career, and he applied the same earnest standards to them that he did to the rest of his homespun catalog. Predictably, the results were similar - warm, cozy records filled with acoustic, folksy pop - and nearly as successful.

Rocky Mountain Christmas, in particular, was a smash, nearly reaching the Top 10 on Billboard's pop album chart (rare for a seasonal LP) and earning an RIAA gold record award - the first Christmas album to ever do so. At the time, John Denver was riding high on an amazing string of successes: five Top 10 albums and seven Top 10 singles in just four years, including seven chart toppers. Denver's career would soon cool considerably, and he would forever be identified as a product of the granola-munching, self-obsessed, post-hippie 1970's. But it's worth remembering that he achieved his success by offering an alternative to the hedonism and excess of the "Me Decade." Rocky Mountain Christmas, filled with (mostly) gentle songs of family and faith, is cut from the very same cloth as Denver's more celebrated records like "Sunshine On My Shoulders" and "Annie's Song." Certainly, John Denver can be criticized for his overt sentimentality - he was a greeting card Bob Dylan - but his style suited the holiday well.

John Denver & The MuppetsThe two sides of the original Rocky Mountain Christmas LP were loosely thematic - secular songs on the first and religious songs on the flip. I find the former far more satisfying than the latter - if only because Denver sounds like he's having more fun picking on "Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer" than genuflecting through "The Coventry Carol." It's the original songs, however, lend Rocky Mountain Christmas its real character. The pastoral and impressionistic "Aspenglow" is more an ode to Denver's adopted hometown than a Christmas song - in fact, it never mentions the holiday. Conversely, "A Baby Just Like You" and "Christmas For Cowboys" (written by Steve Weissberg) are pure Christmas songs and prime John Denver - lovely and understated, if more than a little maudlin.

And then there's "Please Daddy (Don't Get Drunk This Christmas)," written by Bill and Taffy Danoff - who earlier had cowritten Denver's 1971 blockbuster, "Take Me Home Country Roads," and who later perpetrated the Starland Vocal Band ("Afternoon Delight"). Thanks to Denver's straight-faced reading, "Please Daddy (Don't Get Drunk This Christmas)" stops just shy of outright parody. Really, it's a hoot - a bona fide country weeper - but it does stick out like a sore thumb amidst the general tone of reverence.

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John DenverIncidentally, all the tracks on Rocky Mountain Christmas were newly recorded, but two had some history. "Aspenglow" was recycled from Denver's second album, Take Me To Tomorrow (1970), while "Please Daddy (Don't Get Drunk This Christmas) was originally included on Farewell Andromeda (1973) - a western-themed album where its bawdy lyrics were more appropriate. In fact, "Please Daddy" was released as a single that year, denting the Top 100 while reaching #7 on the Christmas charts. "Christmas For Cowboys," by the way, was the pick-to-click from Rocky Mountain Christmas, but it stalled at #58 - Denver's first single in three years to miss the Top 40 and a harbinger of things to come.

RCA's 1998 CD reissue of Rocky Mountain Christmas is nicely done. In addition to crisp sound and informative liner notes, it appends two seasonal songs - a solid "White Christmas" (an outtake from the original sessions) and a brief "Jingle Bells" (from Denver's third album, Whose Garden Was This, 1970). Then, for reasons barely explained, the label also tosses in three altogether non-seasonal, previously-released tracks. More is better than less, I suppose, but I have to think that the repackaged 2005 reissue (sans the three superfluous tracks) will make for a better listen - plus they've restored the original, gatefold LP artwork!

John DenverBy 1979, John Denver had been rendered all but irrelevant by tumultuous changes in the music business. Very nearly banished from the Top 40, his next holiday album - A Christmas Together with the Muppets - reflected his growing stature as a mainstream entertainer more than his waning rank as a rock star. At the time, in fact, the Muppets were hotter than Denver! Consequently, though it peaked at #26, A Christmas Together was one of the singer's best-performing albums since Spirit (1976), and it marked his last Top 30 album chart entry.

Like Charles Schultz's Peanuts, Jim Henson's Muppets were once an edgy, hip force in children's entertainment that, as the franchise expanded, grew maudlin and stodgy. Before that happened, however, the Muppets hosted one of the best comedy shows ever on television. A Christmas Together was simply the soundtrack from one episode of their syndicated series. Split fairly evenly between Muppet hijinks and drippy Denver balladry, A Christmas Together will appeal primarily to fans of either artist - but probably not both. On "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas," Denver acquits himself nicely in a duet with Rowlf the Dog, while the Muppets contribute a variety of amusing yuletide burlesques - especially their all-hands-on-deck deconstruction of "Twelve Days Of Christmas." Three songs from A Christmas Together were bound up on a picture sleeve, red vinyl, 7-inch single, but it failed to chart.

John DenverBefore his tragic death in 1997, Denver recorded two more Christmas albums, neither of which added much to his legacy. Christmas Like A Lullaby (1990) prominently features a group composed, in part, of Elvis Presley alumni - pianist Glen D. Hardin, bassist Jerry Scheff, and guitarist extraordinaire James Burton. But, the band sounds bored, and Denver's seasoned voice - deeper, more resonant - reinforces the fact that the wide-eyed idealism of youth doesn't suit a man pushing 50. Take the title song, Denver's sole original composition on the album; it's a lovely song, but the utopia it lays out simply doesn't exist - and never will - outside of John Denver's rarified fantasy world. On Rocky Mountain Christmas - 15 years prior - that hopeful brand of naiveté sounded charming. On Christmas Like A Lullaby, it sounds unsophisticated at best, simple-minded at worst.

The rest of the album does little alleviate the situation, consisting mainly of predictable carols burdened with innocuous, middle-of-the-road arrangements. Even worse, far too many of the songs are yoked with that most heinous of Christmas clichés - the children's chorus. And, no less than two tracks (and portions of a third) were appropriated from Tom Paxton's 1988 album, A Child's Christmas. No crime there, but certainly it signaled that Denver was less than fully engaged in his career by this point.

Christmas In Concert was recorded in 1996 but released in 2001 - four years after Denver had shuffled off this mortal coil - and it reveals a man reaching a happy rapprochement with his legacy. After a spirited romp through Tom Paxon's "Marvelous Toy," John wonders if kid's these days could relate to such a humble plaything - "they want Super Nintendo or Tickle Me Elmo." But despite the looming presence of the National Symphony Orchestra, the World Children's Choir, and a large audience, the album maintains a humble conviviality. Musically speaking, Christmas In Concert adds nothing to Denver's Christmas canon, but it's a sentimentally satisfying listen all the same. Plus, it's fun to hear Denver reminisce about such favorites as "A Baby Just Like You" (written to order for Frank Sinatra) and "Please Daddy (Don't Get Drunk This Christmas)," conceived as a lark, now imbued with deeper meaning. (Much later, Denver's estate released Christmas EP Live in Hershey, PA, December 6, 1990.)

Finally, we have The Classic Christmas Album (2012), which compiles highlights from almost everything mentioned above, including several rare cuts. For Christmas music enthusiasts, it won't be quite enough. But, i you're only getting one, it is absolutely the one to get.

John Denver, Classic Christmas AlbumConsumer Notes. John Denver's first three Christmas albums have been issued and reissued numerous times. Rocky Mountain Christmas was originally reissued in 1990 by RCA in its original format as a 12-song CD. Later, RCA reissued it with 5 bonus tracks (1998), then reissued again with 3 bonus tracks (2005) and amended cover art following the Sony/BMG merger.

Until 2006, the readily available version of A Christmas Together (on budget label Laserlight) was missing three songs from the original CD version (on Denver's label, Windstar), which might have cost you roughly ten times as much thanks to its scarcity. Since then, it's been reissued several times - just look for a version with the full 13-track contingent.

Much the same can be said for Christmas Like A Lullaby, which has been reissued in full on CD by Windstar (original brown cover) and English label Music Club (amended green cover), and was later trimmed to 10 songs by Laserlight (new portrait cover).

But, Laserlight reissued both Windstar albums in 2006 as "limited collectors editions" with all tracks restored. How special - giving us all the songs that should have been there in the first place... Anyway, both A Christmas Together and Christmas Like A Lullaby are strongly recommended for any Denver fan, so get 'em while you can.

Finally, do not confuse Rocky Mountain Christmas or A Christmas Together with Rocky Mountain Holiday (a 1982 TV special starring Denver and the Muppets), or A Muppet Christmas Carol (soundtrack to the Muppets' 1992 movie sans Denver), or Montana Christmas Skies (a 1991 TV special with guests Clint Black, Kathy Mattea, and Patty Loveless). [top of page]

Albums Albums

SongsSongs

  • A Baby Just Like You (1975)
  • Christmas For Cowboys (1975)
  • Christmas Is A-Coming (with the Muppets, 1979)
  • Christmas Like A Lullaby (1990)
  • Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas (with the Muppets, 1979)
  • Please, Daddy (Don't Get Drunk This Christmas) (1975)
  • Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer (1975)
  • Twelve Days Of Christmas (with the Muppets, 1979)
  • We Wish You A Merry Christmas (with the Muppets, 1979)

Further ListeningFurther Listening

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