The playful title of Dolly Parton’s new Christmas album says it all: Decked out in camp, cuteness and cheer, A Holly Dolly Christmas is wonderfully drunk on holiday spirits. The record marks Parton’s second Christmas album, following her 1990 Home for Christmas. While Home for Christmas harbored 10 solo covers of traditional carols, A Holly Dolly Christmas beams with vibrancy and personality, boasting six original songs and six duets.
The album opens with a jaunty, bouncing cover of “Holly Jolly Christmas.” The cheery ring of sleigh bells has long summoned familiar images of snow and Christmas, and Parton embellishes the well-worn classic with a bouncing bass line, a trilling fiddle and a key change. Parton revamps the song’s bridge to deliver a folksy spoken-word monologue, admitting “Oh, every year I love singing this song/ And I thought, well, why not just do a whole album/ Called ‘A Holly Dolly Christmas’/ So I did.” This tongue-in-cheek bridge introduces a recurrent motif in the album where Parton indulges in adorable spoken asides, blending sing and speech that can charm her listeners or lightly tease her duet partners.
Parton follows the beloved Christmas carol with four consecutive songs all written by the country music artist herself. “Christmas on the Square” and “Christmas Is” are songs featured in her recent Netflix movie, “Christmas on the Square” and both songs soar higher here than they do in the film. On A Holly Dolly Christmas, “Christmas on the Square” embraces warm community and stronger bluegrass inspiration; the call and response between Parton and her backup singers have no shortage of cheesiness but it conjures cozy good-natured hospitality. She invites her goddaughter Miley Cyrus to sing the sweet duet “Christmas Is,” and Parton’s light vibrato blends beautifully with Cyrus’ raspy, grounded voice.
As a general rule, Parton chooses worthy duet partners for A Holly Dolly Christmas: Miley and Billy Ray Cyrus, Michael Bublé, Willie Nelson and Parton’s younger brother, Randy Parton. Each artist makes the most of their feature while maintaining their own creative style. Bublé matches Parton’s playful rapport in the smooth, jazz-inspired “Cuddle Up, Cozy Down Christmas.” The track’s flirty themes are reminiscent of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” but instead of the latter’s creepy power dynamics, Parton and Bublé’s duet exudes cheeky, infectious and mutual enthusiasm. A softer but just as memorable duet arrives when Nelson joins Parton to perform his original 1963 hit “Pretty Paper.”
Within this otherwise strong set of featured artists, the Achilles’ heel of A Holly Dolly Christmas is Jimmy Fallon. The “Tonight Show” host collaborates with Parton to cover the household holiday anthem “All I Want for Christmas is You.” Yet, this underwhelming rendition replaces the original’s trademark melismas and vocal bravura with trite ad-libbed remarks. It’s a bizarre pairing because Fallon firstly lacks the vocal chops required to cover a Mariah Carey song, and secondly, he fails to deliver the personal charm that Parton’s quips are trying to elicit. Parton and Fallon’s banter, moreover, plays an out of tune second fiddle to the similarly flirty remarks between Parton and Bublé.
Still, A Holly Dolly Christmas boasts more than just fun and upbeat bops; Parton offers sensitive, heartfelt ballads, such as “Mary, Did You Know?” and “Comin’ Home for Christmas.” The standout of these slowed songs, however, is “Circle of Love,” a song penned by Parton. She gently relays the nativity story over a simple Alberti bass, twinkling strings and soft percussion. Rich with tenderness, it’s the kind of Christmas carol that deserves to be sung around a crackling campfire.
A Holly Dolly Christmas isn’t trying to reinvent the wheel — Parton sounds like she’s having fun, and honestly, that’s enough. The album feels like a labor of love, fusing lighthearted country shuffle with the Christmas spirit. The scant 45-minute duration makes the record a welcomed reprieve, an escape from a heavy, sobering reality to a nostalgic holiday-adorned haven.