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O holy night? 'CMA Country Christmas' finally gets it right

O holy night? 'CMA Country Christmas' finally gets it right
Jennifer Nettles, left, and Idina Menzel perform on "CMA Country Christmas." (Rick Diamond / Getty Images)

Did you hear what I heard?

On Monday night, ABC broadcast this year's edition of "CMA Country Christmas," its annual holiday special featuring Nashville's best, brightest and most eager to promote a new Christmas album. Historically, this thing has been a reliable horror show: two hours of forced jollity and embarrassing production design that makes the Rockefeller Center tree-lighting debacle look like a model of daring and taste.

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So, of course, I tuned in Monday in fear — OK, in hopes — of witnessing another car crash.

But as sure as Rudolph's nose is red, "CMA Country Christmas" was nowhere near as bad as I'd expected. In fact, it was almost a pleasure.

One key to the special's improvement was the decision to do away with the lame between-song bits, which in the past have included various singers' descriptions of their down-home holiday traditions.

I'm sorry, but it hardly roasts my chestnuts to discover that Luke Bryan (or whomever) loves to surprise his kids in a ratty old Santa suit he inherited from his great-grandpappy.

Minus that nonsense, this year's production — taped a few weeks ago at the Grand Ole Opry (and set for an encore presentation on Dec. 24) — moved quickly from performance to performance, giving the evening's host, Jennifer Nettles, mercifully little time to crack the world's corniest awards-show jokes.

And most of the performances were very strong.

There was Kelsea Ballerini doing "The Christmas Song" as a kind of low-key country-jazz number, her singing at once dewy and self-assured. There was Kacey Musgraves breezing through "Mele Kalikimaka" backed by a close-harmony vocal trio and a drummer patting his thigh for percussion.

And there was Trisha Yearwood bringing real sensuality to "What Are You Doing New Year's Eve?" a standout from the fine holiday album she just released with her husband, Garth Brooks.

Even the cheesemongers in Rascal Flatts killed it on "Joy to the World," which they remade to sound exactly like "Takin' It to the Streets" by the Doobie Brothers.

Were there unwelcome ghosts of "Christmas Country's" past? Duh.

Aping Michael Bublé in a shimmering blue tuxedo jacket, Brett Eldredge was a smartly dressed dullard in "Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!" — all smiles but no charisma.

And it was hard to watch Nettles and Idina Menzel suffer through "Little Drummer Boy," a song that can rob a skilled singer of her dignity even without a pint-sized contestant from "So You Think You Can Dance" flailing around behind her.

Fortunately, the show finished on a high point, with Loretta Lynn delivering her hard-nosed "Country Christmas" — it's about having to sleep on the floor because her aunt and uncle brought along their nine kids — with an expression bordering on outright hostility.

She was a mean one, Mr. Grinch — and this surprising "CMA Country Christmas" was all the better for it.

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Twitter: @mikaelwood

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