december 2011

Trisha Yearwood
MCA Nashville
Released: 1994; reissued: 2000

For her first and only holiday album, one of country's great singers eschewed the safety of seasonal favorites for a 50-50 mix, with half of the songs being newly penned by contemporary songwriters. Despite being no stranger to huge, soaring ballads, Yearwood opts mostly for a low-key approach, and by and large keeps it country; in the end the sweetest gift is quietude.

Trisha Yearwood in a 2006 performance of ‘Sweet Little Jesus Boy, the first track on The Sweetest Gift

That said, one of the most engaging numbers on the album is in fact one of the grander productions, "Take a Walk Through Bethlehem," by Ashley Cleveland, John Barlow Jarvis and Wally Wilson. To advance its message of faith and hope as the road to salvation, Yearwood's long-time producer Garth Fundis employs a string section, multi-voiced background choir (which includes songwriter Ashley Cleveland), a church piano courtesy Steve Nathan and the occasional jab of Brent Mason's electric guitar, but these don't appear in abundance until the song nears its end, when Yearwood gives free reign to her big voice and the collective surges to a triumphant close. More typical is the opening cut, "Sweet Little Jesus Boy," a hymn-like meditation on humankind's ongoing spiritual failings, with Yearwood's thoughtful reading evocatively--and minimally--supported by Matt Rollings on piano, Nathan on keyboards and, blowing soft and blue behind the singer, Kirk "Jelly Roll" Johnson on harmonica. On the uptempo side, Hank Snow's "Reindeer Boogie" is indeed treated as a surging country boogie, with Yearwood's loose, carefree vocal joined in its propulsive frolic by a delightful steel solo from Paul Franklin, a frisky fiddle workout by way of Aubrey Haynie, and Dan Huff with a spitfire electric guitar solo. Leiber-Stoller's "Santa Claus Is Back In Town" is given a grinding blues treatment, with Yearwood adopting a swaggering attitude as a tough sextet thumps away behind her, with Becky Priest and Heather Risser stepping out with lively solos on, respectively, piano and fiddle. The title song is not even remotely holiday themed, but is rather a lovely, lilting country ballad by J.B. Coats honoring a mother's unending love, undimmed by her son's imprisonment. Elegant solos from dobroist Franklin and fiddler Stuart Duncan punctuate the gentle, graceful rhythm, setting up a heart-tugging chorus featuring Trisha and her sister Beth Yearwood Bernard uniting their voices in sibling harmony of the richest, most beautiful sort. Throw in a bopping "Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!" and close with a dreamy take on Mel Torme-Robert Wells's "The Christmas Song" (which provides a nice bookend to the opening track, in that Steve Nathan again is providing bluesy piano support and Kirk Johnson returns to lend some low moans on harmonica) and The Sweetest Gift lives up to its billing, in addition to being yet another tour de force of intelligent, heartfelt vocalizing by a woman who makes it sound so easy. --David McGee

Trisha Yearwood’s The Sweetest Gift is available at

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Laura Fissinger, Christopher Hill, Derk Richardson
Logo Design: John Mendelsohn (
Website Design: Kieran McGee (
Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY;, Alicia Zappier (New York)
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024