Thirty years after her last Christmas album, Dolly Parton is back again with the charming and homegrown A Holly Dolly Christmas. Her previous Christmas releases—Once Upon a Christmas with Kenny Rogers in 1984, and Home for Christmas in 1990—were fairly even mixes of traditional songs with original creations. The newest release is heavy on originals, with two songs tied to Dolly-adjacent TV movies. The album is what you likely expect from any Dolly Parton release: down-to-earth, joyful, warm, and the farthest thing from cynical. Parton’s hugely likable personality comes through the album loud and clear, and despite one or two puzzling or lackluster duets, the company she keeps here is capable of getting on Parton’s level. The whole experience makes for a cozy Christmas album full of old and new songs that inspire you to curl up close to those you love and snuggle them tight.
The album begins with “Holly Jolly Christmas,” setting the tone perfectly. The production is typical for the song, with a hint of country twang. Parton eventually interjects with a loose spoken word segment where she thinks aloud about how she “Just loves Christmas…and I thought why not just do a whole album? So I did!” It’s a little kitschy and cute, but Parton can get away with it. This joyful Christmas classic is followed by another staple of the holiday genre, the song that reminds us of what Christmas is really about. Along with guest Miley Cyrus, Parton reminds us in “Christmas Is” that “it’s all about kindness, love, and compassion/it’s better to give than receive [and] those that don’t know that, they are the poorest indeed.” It may sound treacly on paper, but knowing Parton’s documented generosity of both spirit and wealth, it’s comforting to hear a bit of compassion from someone who has been both a “have and have not.”
A real gem of the album is the lead single “Cuddle Up, Cozy Down Christmas” with Michael Bublé. Bublé brings the right amount of jazzy buoyancy to the track, marking it from the countrified offerings throughout the rest. The song soon unfolds and reveals itself as essentially the updated remake of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” that people have been trying to create for years. In “Cuddle Up,” both singers agree that “we’re not going anywhere…the storm is just too bad.” The age discrepancy in the singers is also notable as something on the rarer side, but you naturally don’t mind when listening. The song’s overall effect is to make you want to cuddle up and cozy down with some candles and a glass of mulled wine as soon as possible.
There are a few other duets on the album, with most of them landing successfully. The next best may be “You Are My Christmas,” which Parton sings with her brother Randy Parton. The song is lively, warm, full-bodied, and energetic. It’s one of a few songs that remind you that the best gifts are love and good company, rather than shiny toys and tinsel. The familial affection adds an extra layer of support to the home comforts they sing about.
Two shakier duets are “Christmas Where We Are” and “Pretty Paper” with Billy Ray Cyrus and Willie Nelson, respectively. Cyrus sounds a bit rough, and although it’s one of the slower songs, he doesn’t bring much energy to the track. “Pretty Paper” is fine, and Parton is in sweet country ballad mode. However, the track is hard to mess with, so it sounds pretty much like any other recording of the song.
The most puzzling duet on the album must be “All I Want for Christmas Is You,” featuring famous singer…Jimmy Fallon. This is one of many songs on Holly Dolly Christmas that includes spoken word banter, and this one features a few moments that will either have you laughing ironically or sincerely. Fallon’s archetypal “I can’t believe this is happening right now!” will either amuse you or annoy you. Either way, the song itself is alright, although it is bizarre to hear Fallon singing in his “natural” voice. Regardless, the singers’ good spirits and mutual admiration come through and turn this Mariah Carey classic into an appreciation of friendship during the holidays.
The two songs that come from Dolly’s Christmas movies—“Christmas On the Square” and “Circle of Love” —are fine, although probably better in the context of their films. “Christmas On the Square” in particular sounds perfect for a rousing group number that requires visuals to be wholly enjoyed.
One of the best ballads on the album exemplifies the beating heart that A Holly Dolly Christmas is. “Comin’ Home for Christmas” finds Parton painting a picture of home in her mind, but “the picture’s nearly perfect… it’s only missing me.” The theme is similar to “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” with its own melancholy undercurrent. However, Parton and her co-writer Kent Wells conjure up a certain nostalgia that may hit even harder in 2020 than it may have been expected to. Parton depicts a yearning not just to be home for Christmas but to be at home with family the way you used to be when you were young before many things became more complicated. Parton suffuses this song and every part of a Holly Dolly Christmas with warmth and intimacy. By the end, you feel a part of her family or at least a part of her family Christmas.