When you think of Darren Criss, you don’t typically associate him with country music and Nashville. After all, he is an Emmy, Golden Globe, and Screen Actors Guild award-winning actor, as well as a singer, songwriter, and Broadway star. But on his debut holiday album, A Very Darren Crissmas, Criss is revealing a part of himself that he hasn’t before revealed: his love for the storytelling genre and Music City.
Out now via Decca Records, the 14-song collection of classics and new originals was recorded in Nashville with GRAMMY-nominated producer, Ron Fair. Criss, who lives out in Los Angeles, was every bit excited yet intentional about where he recorded his album. Apart from the practicalities of Fair’s Faircraft Studios location in Nashville, he wanted to harness the city’s world-class team of local musicians.
“One of our triumphs on this album was that I think we managed to make 2021 Nashville sound like 1950s Hollywood — and that has to do with the sheer first rate-ness of the caliber of musicians that you have in Nashville,” Criss tells Sounds Like Nashville over Zoom recently. “It’s an unbelievable place to make an album and I was very happy to do that. It’s very much part of the lifeblood of how this album sounds.”
For his festive set, Criss enlisted the help of some of Nashville’s finest musicians, including Stuart Duncan and Paul Franklin, amongst others. The former is an Academy of Country Music award-winning fiddle player, and the latter a prolific steel guitarist who’s worked with George Strait, Alan Jackson, Reba McEntire, Randy Travis, Shania Twain, Vince Gill, and more. Opting to do things old-school, Criss’ recording his album in a live take. There was no overdubbing, or combining of separate instrument recordings into a mix. It was all done in live sessions, just like a true “Nashville-sounding country record.”
While Criss’ latest full-length project is a seasonal offering, it’s not to be overlooked as a cookie-cutter novelty venture or run-off-the-mill festive cash-grab. The record, which includes covers of yuletide classics, underrated tunes and two originals he had written, was every bit passionately and intentionally assembled by a singer who’s waited his “entire life” to put out a “Crissmas” record.
“As the album suggests it is called A Very Darren Crissmas. Aside from it being a really annoyingly convenient pun for my last name, it is actually a very apt title because everything about this album is very me. Arguably it’s one of the most personal albums I’ve ever put out,” Criss says.
The former Glee actor explains, “People might lose sight of that because it’s a Christmas album, and they might put in the category of commercial artist fair. But there’s a lot of personal things going on with this in the way that I’ve chosen the songs, in the way I’ve arranged them, in the way that I’ve rethought them and presented new songs.”
Criss’ holiday LP features fresh renditions of beloved classics such as Andy Williams’ ebullient “Happy Holidays/It’s The Holiday Season,” Home Alone’s “Somewhere In My Memory” with Evan Rachel Wood, and Kay Starr’s jazz number “(Everybody’s Waitin For) The Man With The Bag” with Adam Lambert. The effervescent song proudly showcases both the adept singers’ vocal range and ability to match chromatic runs. Country fans will also recognize the tune from earlier versions popularized by Lee Ann Womack and Kellie Pickler.
Elsewhere on the album, Criss puts his spin on lesser-known B-sides including Nancy Lamott’s “All Those Christmas Cliches,” which he reimagines as a jubilant broadway tune toward the end; Regina Spektor’s ruminative “New Year”; and the wistful “St Patrick’s Day,” a track off John Mayer’s 2001 debut LP, Room for Square.
Out of all 14 songs on Criss’ album, the crown jewel for country music listeners is the Lainey Wilson-assisted “Drunk On Christmas,” one of only two brand-new originals.
Penned solely by Criss, old-school country fans will take delight in the whimsical tune because of its unequivocally country lyrics and traditional instrumentation, which includes the revered pedal steel guitar. “Something that I admire the most about country music and Nashville particularly is country songwriting. The country writing tradition is famously about storytelling, and lyricism is a really important touchstone for country music in the way that it can be at its best with Broadway music,” Criss reflects. “As a lover of both, I wanted to try my hand at what my country tune would be.”
As Criss recalls, he composed the song with Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash duets in mind. But as he got farther into the lyrics and melodic arrangement, he realized it was shaping into something more cross-genre.
“The more I got into it, the more I realized that I was making an alternate universe version of zenith Dolly Parton in the ’70s doing a rascally drinking duet with 1970s, Las Vegas era Dean Martin,” Criss shares, beaming with excitement. “If there was an alternate universe where that happens, like a crossover hit that could have happened between the remnants of ’40s, ’50s jazz and the crooners with modern country-pop of the ’70s country, that would be what I was trying to create, and that’s exactly what I did.”
Of course, then, fans might be wondering: how did Criss and Wilson, two artists from polar opposite worlds, cross paths?
As Criss swiftly admits, Wilson was the only featured artist he did not have an established relationship with prior to the project. Earlier on in the process, when Criss had asked Fair for ideas on a potential duet partner for “Drunk On Christmas,” the veteran industry executive, who has his finger on the pulse of promising newcomers in country music, threw out Wilson’s name in a heartbeat.
“She’s going to have a Number One on the country charts in September of this year, I guarantee it,” Fair told Criss. “This was in March,” the singer recalls. “Wouldn’t you know it, he called the shot. She had a Number One in September.” Wilson’s “Things A Man Oughta Know,” which topped the Mediabase and Billboard Country charts on September 19, 2021, is the hit single Criss is referring to.
So, the city guy and the country girl got acquainted over lunch not long after, and what do you know — they “got along like a house on fire.”
“I just love everything about Lainey. I love her record. I love the album she put out this past year. Everything about her is just right in line with what I would hope to be lucky enough to have on this song,” Criss says of the Louisianan.
“She’s a what I’d like to call ‘USDA Prime-certified country sanger’,’” he quips. Yes, “singer” with an “A,” just as how one with a southern accent would pronounce it. “She has a pedigree that is so country that it added a level of authenticity and legitimacy on top of the very authentic Nashville musicians we had on it. [It’s something] that I could only dream of. I’m really, really lucky that she said yes.”
While this album marks Criss’ first little foray into country music and Music City, he is cognizant of the fact that he’s the “outsider coming in” to a tightly knit community.
“I’ll say it’s difficult to come in from the outside,” the San Francisco native admits. “There’s a real pride of tradition with country music as there is with Broadway, as there is hip-hop, rock ‘n’ roll, and punk rock. But make no mistake,” he notes passionately, “I’m a lover of especially the Nashville sound of the ’50s. It’s a history and heritage I admire, have been inspired by, and really wanted to give homage to with ‘Drunk On Christmas.’ Trying my hand at a country song with someone as legit as Lainey Wilson is a really cool way for me to sneak into this world and say, ‘Hey guys, I’m a big fan!’”
With a visibly warm smile, Criss adds, “I’ve such a huge admiration and respect for country music’s heritage and its greatest contributions to music in general. This is my attempt at tipping my hat and thanking them for their inspiration.”
Collectively, the warm, feel-good nostalgia of the festive season is well captured on Criss’ debut Crissmas record. There are songs for when you want to cozy up on the couch with a cup of hot cocoa (“The Christmas Song”), and for when you want to jam out to a gleeful pop bop (“Christmas Dance”).
Regardless of your musical palette, whether you’re a fan of Criss, broadway music, or country music, there truly is a song for everyone on A Very Darren Crissmas. It’s a wonderfully-wrapped timeless gift and soundtrack that will be a mainstay for many, many Christmases to come.
To ring in the holidays and promote his new album, Criss will be performing on CBS’ 23rd Annual A Home for the Holidays on Sunday, Dec. 5 at 9:30PM ET, and Disney Parks Magical Christmas Day Parade later on Christmas Day (Dec. 25) at 10AM ET on ABC. Additionally, the multi-talented singer will bring the album to life for a livestream and in-person special on Dec. 20 at The Beacon in New York. For more information, go to darrencriss.com/avdctour.
Get your copy of A Very Darren Crissmas here and/or stream it below.