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15 Best Country Christmas Duets

Rolling Stone logo Rolling Stone 11/14/2020 Will Hodge
Willie Nelson, Kacey Musgraves are posing for a picture: 15 Best Country Christmas Duets © Gary Miller/Getty Images 15 Best Country Christmas Duets

When it comes to Christmas-themed country duets, it’s pretty surprising that many of the genre’s most well-loved and well-known duos never captured a shared seasonal moment for an official release. Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn never collaborated on their separate Christmas albums, Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton released 13 albums together without ever drawing from the holiday well, and although Faith Hill has one of the Top 10 best-selling Christmas singles of all-time (2001’s “Where Are You Christmas?”), she’s never recorded even one seasonal single with husband (and sometimes duet partner) Tim McGraw.

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However, thanks to a variety of inspired studio partnerships and one-off television specials from yuletides of yesteryear, there are more than enough Christmas collaborations to enjoy this time of year. Here are 15 duets spanning the early Seventies all the way up to now.

Blake Shelton and Kelly Clarkson, “There’s a New Kid in Town”

Blake Shelton brought a variety-show spirit to his platinum-selling Cheers, It's Christmas album, inviting an impressive list of guests that included Miranda Lambert, Reba McEntire, Michael Bublé, Pistol Annies and more. However, it's his duet with Kelly Clarkson on the Keith Whitley-penned "There's a New Kid In Town" that provides a heartfelt emotional anchor to the holiday album. While the studio recording does a really nice job of capturing the impassioned resonance of both singers' voices, the truly transcendent version is the live rendition the two summoned for the 2012 TV special Blake Shelton's Not-So-Family Christmas. After some playful back-and-forth banner that's the calling card for these types of televised holiday specials, the two deliver their tenderly powerful duet in flawless fashion.

Colbie Caillat and Brad Paisley, “Merry Christmas Baby”

While Colbie Caillat is mostly known for her smart pop songs and easygoing vocal delivery, her duet with Brad Paisley on "Merry Christmas Baby" from her 2012 Christmas in the Sand album finds her expertly channeling a Bonnie Raitt-esque country-blues growl. With Paisley's twangy Telecaster nudging her along, Caillat seems to draw on his country leanings, while Paisley playfully rises to meet her pop inclinations. This unique pairing uncovers some pleasantly surprising layers to each artist's repertoire, while also generating a fun, feel-good Christmas song that functions as both the album's lead track and also its snappy tone-setter.  

Kenny Rogers and Jennifer Nettles, “Here It Is Christmas / Baby, It’s Cold Outside”

Kenny Rogers may very well be country music's Bing Crosby or Perry Como, as evidenced by his catalog of multi-platinum Christmas albums and three entries on this duets list. Rogers released Once Again It's Christmas in 2015 and he included a handful of guests to help him ring in the season this time around. Alison Krauss, Larry Hall, Home Free and Jim Brickman all make appearances with Rogers, but it's his duet with Sugarland's Jennifer Nettles that proves to be the album's standout track. Joining for a smoldering medley of "Here It Is Christmas" and "Baby, It's Cold Outside," Nettles and Rogers elegantly dance their lines around each other in a way that leaves you wanting more, especially of the all-too-short front end number.

Johnny Cash and Anne Murray, “That Christmasy Feeling”

Of all of Johnny Cash's televised Christmas specials, his 1979 show seems to be the one that strikes the best balance between his simple country boy and larger-than-life celebrity personas. His third annual show returned to Nashville (it was recorded in Los Angeles the year prior) and features an interesting guest list that included Tom T. Hall, Andy Kaufman and Anne Murray, who was still riding the wave of her career-revitalizing Number One hit "You Needed Me" (which she also performed that night). Cash and Murray duetted on a chipper romp through "That Christmasy Feeling," a song originally written by Cash's brother Tommy that first appeared on the 1972 album The Johnny Cash Family Christmas. This festive performance is overflowing with the pair's Christmas spirit and more than a touch of late Seventies schmaltz.

Mindy Smith and Thad Cockrell, “I Know the Reason”

After two albums of acclaimed country-tinged Americana, Mindy Smith decided to deliver a Christmas album for her third full-length. 2007's My Holiday features a very personal take on the season from Smith, as her friends (and fellow artists) Chely Wright and Alison Krauss contribute background vocals and half of the songs on the album's tracklisting are self-penned originals. One of those compositions is "I Know the Reason," a folksy, sentimental shuffle with singer-songwriter Thad Cockrell (who also has a co-writing credit on the track). Cockrell's high harmonies add a wonderful texture to Smith's smoky croon, creating a wonderfully cozy atmosphere on a song that's readymade to soundtrack your next December date night.        

Willie Nelson and Kenny Chesney, “Pretty Paper”

Although Willie Nelson wrote "Pretty Paper," it was Roy Orbison who first made the song famous with his 1963 hit single. Nelson recorded a version himself the following year and re-recorded it in 1979 for inclusion (and title-track status) on his first full-length Christmas album. Since it was first released, the song has become a perennial favorite that remains ripe for reinvention on albums by country and non-country artists alike. When Kenny Chesney chose to cover it on his All I Want for Christmas Is a Real Good Tan album in 2003, he invited Nelson to take another crack at recording it, this time as a duet. The interplay between Chesney's quintessential laid-back style and Nelson's trademark delivery creates an effortless cool that allows this track to float along in defiance against the ever-present rush of the season.

Kenny Rogers and Wynonna Judd, “Mary, Did You Know”

While Dolly Parton may be Kenny Rogers' most well-known duet partner, she's certainly not the only female country legend with which he's crooned a holiday tune. In 1996, Rogers joined vocal forces with Wynonna Judd for an earnest "Mary, Did You Know?" for his fourth Christmas album, The Gift. Also released as a holiday single that year, the song charted well on the Billboard's Hot Country Songs due to its fan-fueled radio airplay. While both iconic voices meld smoothly to create a welcoming rendition, their shared crescendo on the bridge truly reflects the duo's power and range. For this inventive live version, Rogers starts the song on stage by himself, is accompanied by Wynonna via a pre-recorded video, and then disappears from stage to "join" her in the video (being mindful enough to arrive in the same outfit he was just wearing on stage). Who says 1990s country music wasn't at the forefront of creative uses of technology?          

Tanya Tucker and Glen Campbell, “It Must’ve Been the Mistletoe”

Although Tanya Tucker and Glen Campbell were romantically linked for only a brief time in the early 1980s, their stormy relationship coincided with an affectionate appearance on the 1980 TV special A Country Christmas. For their sentimental segment, the starry-eyed couple strolls through the snow with presents in hand singing "It Must Have Been the Mistletoe (Our First Christmas)" on their way to a party. It's hard to imagine why an official version of the duo's dreamy tune was never recorded, but their magic-making being captured on A Country Christmas is one of the shining examples of why these star-studded, festively-packaged TV specials were so significant. Stick around to the end of the video for a quick comedic skit with Grand Ole Opry legend Minnie Pearl.

Amy Grant and Vince Gill, “Baby, It’s Cold Outside”

It's not so much a matter if this song would appear on this list, but when and by whom. While "Baby, It's Cold Outside" is unquestionably one of the most oft-covered Christmas duets since it was first released in the mid-1940s, it's a hit-or-miss undertaking that has dragged some pretty strong singers down into the depths of cheesy cliché. However, for Amy Grant's newest holiday offering, this year's Tennessee Christmas, she enlisted husband Vince Gill for a jazz-tinged shuffle through the love-it-or-hate-it standard. Keeping it on the flirty side of romantic, Grant and Gill are pretty heavy-handed with the one ingredient that is missing from most other versions of this Christmas classic: pure and simple believability.      

Alan Jackson and Alison Krauss, “The Angels Cried”

Thanks to a string of country radio hits and multi-platinum records, Alan Jackson was at the top of his game in 1993 when he released his first Christmas album. While Honky Tonk Christmas boasted a posthumous pairing with Keith Whitley ("There's a New Kid in Town") and a comical matchup with Alvin & the Chipmunks ("Santa's Gonna Come in a Pickup Truck"), it was his ethereal duet with Alison Krauss on "The Angels Cried" that garnered the most praise from fans and critics. At just 22, a very young Krauss – already a two-time Grammy winner and member of the Grand Ole Opry – not only holds her own with the established superstar, but she also elevates his performance in a way that makes their track truly memorable.        

Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”

Johnny Cash wore his love for Christmas on his sleeve over the years, as he released at least one Christmas album every decade starting in the 1960s. He also hosted a celebrated series of televised Christmas specials in the 1970s and 1980s as well. June Carter Cash was an evergreen presence alongside the Man in Black for the majority of those albums and specials, even joining him when he was a guest star on other holiday shows. Their stirring rendition of the Henry Wadsworth Longfellow carol "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day" from the 1977 Billy Graham TV special A Family Christmas provides a fantastic snapshot of the couple's charm and also includes the added bonus of one of Johnny's unparalleled spoken-word readings.

George Jones and Tammy Wynette, “Mr. and Mrs. Santa Claus”

While George Jones and Tammy Wynette delivered some of the genre's most legendary duet performances on their nine shared albums, they only got around to recording one Christmas single together. 1973's "Mr. & Mrs. Santa Claus" is a bouncy, flirty number that sets its singers in "a cozy den with a big ol' fireplace burnin'" after the kids have been put to bed. The non-album single, along with its touching b-side "The Greatest Christmas Gift," was released between their Number One "We're Gonna Hold On" and their emblematic favorite "(We're Not) The Jet Set," so it wonderfully highlights both vocalists in their full-voiced brilliance.

Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood, “What Child Is This”

Superstars Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood made their fans doubly happy this holiday season with Christmas Together, their highly anticipated duets album that doubles as a Christmas record. However, it is their duet of "What Child Is This?" from the 1998 TV special Christmas in Rockefeller Center that is most notable for being one of the earliest examples of the undeniable chemistry the two possess. Coming just a year after the release of their first duet ("In Another's Eyes"), it's easy to watch this performance and see the intense connection between the two singers, who would eventually go on to marry in 2005.  

Kacey Musgraves and Willie Nelson, “A Willie Nice Christmas”

Of the glut of Christmas albums released this year, Kacey Musgraves' A Very Kacey Christmas seems to best capture the whimsical-yet-earnest nature that's inherent in the most timeless, oft-returning Christmas favorites. With a playful mixture of classics and originals (plus a seasonal-standard sprinkling of guest vocalists), Musgraves strikes the perfect balance between nostalgia and the modern. Her Hawaiian-flavored, tongue-in-cheek duet with Willie Nelson on "A Willie Nice Christmas" is filled with lyrical nods to some of the Red Headed Stranger's best-loved songs and more than a few sly winks to having a Christmas that is, ahem, "more green than blue."          

Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers, “I Believe In Santa Claus”

Any conversation about classic country Christmas duets begins and ends with Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers. Capitalizing on the huge success of their Number One hit single "Islands in the Stream" from the year before, the crossover country stars returned in 1984 with the double platinum Once Upon a Christmas. Not only did the album spawn the iconic television special Kenny & Dolly: A Christmas to Remember, but many of the beloved album's songs still receive heavy rotation on holiday radio playlists over 30 years later. While "The Greatest Gift of All" turned out to be the album's official single, "I Believe In Santa Claus" best exemplifies the magical merry-making created by Dolly and Kenny throughout the album and TV special.

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