Before there was Luke Bryan singing “Run Run Rudolph” or Darius Rucker without Hootie and the Blowfish, there was a somber Willie Nelson reminding us all about the true meaning of Christmas and Elvis Presley serenading women nationwide with his classic not-red Christmas hit. The values of Christmas and the values of country music center around family, so it makes sense that the best versions of holiday classics come with a little twang.
Here, we’ve compiled the best classic country Christmas songs released before 1985 in no particular order, and not surprisingly, most were such huge hits that they make the regular rounds in department stores and Christmas shows today.
15. “Old Toy Trains”, Roger Miller
Originally recorded in 1967, Roger Miller’s Christmas ballad has been revamped over the years by various artists, but the original is still the best. Typically lost in today’s upbeat circulation of Christmas songs, Miller speaks to a little boy dreaming of the toy trains Santa will bring on Christmas morning, bringing both young and old back to the memories of being kids in bed ourselves.
14. “White Christmas”, Oak Ridge Boys
A 1982 twist on the classic “White Christmas”, this is arguably the best song on the Oak Ridge Boy’s Christmas, their seventh studio album. The harmonies that made the Oak Ridge Boys famous are best put to work in this version of Irving Berlin’s original.
13. “Christmas Without You”, Kenny Rogers & Dolly Parton
Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton’s joint Christmas album, Once Upon a Christmas, released in 1984, featured both country stars at the peak of their careers. It was released congruently with the CBS Christmas special centered around the two, “Kenny & Dolly: A Christmas to Remember”. The romantic and upbeat video, released after the special, pays homage to World War II veterans.
12. “Country Christmas”, Loretta Lynn
Loretta Lynn’s 1966 Christmas tune pays homage to her roots in a way that proves to be relatable to families across the U.S. to this day. It’s the title track on her only Christmas album, Country Christmas, that featured both original songs, like “To Heck with Ole Santa Claus”, and classics like “Silver Bells”.
11. “Christmas in Dixie”, Alabama
Before there was Alabama’s classic “Song of the South”, there was “Christmas in Dixie”. A true celebration of Christmas in the South, Alabama released this 1982 hit independently, but it ended up on their 1985 Alabama Christmas album anyways thanks to popularity it gained.
There’s something about pine trees in songs that really makes them worth their salt.
10. “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer”, Elmo & Patsy
The reason why this 1979 song has stayed in the limelight at Christmastime is probably because grandparents teach their grandkids this song for laughs and then are stuck singing it for the next seven Christmases. Sorry, Mammaw!
Regardless of the reason, this classic needs no explanation on why it deserves a spot on this list. It’s just that original.
9. “Hard Candy Christmas”, Dolly Parton
This unexpected Christmas song surprised music reviewers everywhere when it gained so much popularity from Dolly Parton’s musical movie, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. It was released with the movie in 1982, and quickly made its way around the country Christmas radio stations during the following holiday seasons.
8. “Jingle Bell Rock”, Bobby Helms
Before the cast of Mean Girls showed off their less-than-savory dance moves to this 1957 hit, Bobby Helms’ recording of the song is by far the most recognizable. His reference to other relevant hits that the time, like “Rock Around the Clock”, show the song’s age, but don’t be fooled. It’s still a surefire Christmas winner every year.
7. “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”, Gene Autry
This 1949 Christmas classic is just that: a Christmas classic. Folk singer Gene Autry’s single is the most renowned version of this hit, recorded for the first set of adaptations of turning Christmas stories into songs. While Autry’s version fell off the charts immediately after it hit No. 1, countless artists have recorded their own versions, keeping the memory of Rudolph alive. As if we could really forget, though.
6. “Pretty Paper”, Willie Nelson
While Willie originally wrote this song for none other than Roy Orbison, Nelson eventually gave it a go himself. Detailing the true meaning of Christmas on his 1979 album of the same name, the song reminds listeners that Christmas isn’t just about the gift-giving and wrapping of presents for the season. It’s really about being with the ones you love during this most wonderful time of year.
5. “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree”, Brenda Lee
Recorded by rockabilly phenomenon Brenda Lee in 1958, this Christmas song literally became an instant classic. While cover versions were released over the years, it’s still Brenda Lee’s open and coaxing voice that makes you want pumpkin pie the most during the holidays. That solo saxophone break has been known to get an uncle or two riled up at any Christmas family gathering and for that, we are grateful.
4. “If We Make It Through December”, Merle Haggard
Merle Haggard’s somber 1973 hit sides firmly in the genre of Christmas songs that lack praise for the warmth and joy of the holiday season, instead depicting a sadder reality of a family with a breadwinner who has recently lost his job. It was the lead single from Merle’s Christmas album, Merle Haggard’s Christmas Present, and has since become a classic in his career.
3. “Little Drummer Boy”, Johnny Cash
Originally recorded in 1955 by the Trapp Family Singers, “Little Drummer Boy” is always on rotation in Christmas playlists everywhere, especially on Christmas Eve night. Call me a sucker for Cash’s deep, slow voice, but this is by far my favorite version of the song, which he recorded in 1963. The serious clarity he brings to all of his songs particularly shines here in the honest lyrics of the drummer boy.
2. “Blue Christmas”, Elvis Presley
In this live recording of “Blue Christmas”, you can hear the swoons from the audience as Presley leads into the first verse. And that’s pretty much the reaction this song still garners from every female who hears it in department stores nationwide. Presley’s sultry Christmas song, released originally in 1957, continually made Christmas rotations, even inspiring Porky Pig’s hilarious version.
1. “Holly Jolly Christmas”, Burl Ives
Though Burl Ives didn’t pen this hit himself, it is still the classic Christmas song by a country singer in the history of the world. Uplifting and reminiscent of time past while still remaining current, this holiday classic is the epitome of Christmas cheer, as is Burl Ives smooth vocals. Though others have re-recorded this hit as of late, including the unflappable Michael Bublé, Burl’s recording still smells like a Douglas fir and wood-burning fireplaces on Christmas morning.
While you won’t find Reba McEntire, Martina McBride, Kenny Chesney, Brad Paisley, or even George Strait on this list, it’s a nice throwback to the songs we grew up listening to. Of course you can’t forget the classic hits outside of country, but when it comes to the best versions, these best country Christmas songs just take you right back to the record player. Don’t be a grinch this year! Cozy up in your own winter wonderland and enjoy a very silent night indeed as you reflect on the love you’ve given and received this year. Who knows, maybe you’ll even pop on Eartha Kitt’s “Santa Baby” to add some smooth soul to your classic Christmas listening.
However you spend this holiday season, do it with love and kindness. Have yourself a merry little Christmas, y’all!