Here’s a sentence that’s going to sound like Mad Libs, but is somehow actually true: On the Philadelphia Eagles offensive line’s second Christmas album, right tackle Lane Johnson sings lead vocals on a cover of Willie Nelson’s 1963 hit “Pretty Paper,” along with singer-songwriter Katie Crutchfield, who plays music under the name Waxahatchee. Give it a listen below, and then let’s check in back here.
Okay, so, to be certain, there isn’t a great reason for this record to exist. There is no shortage of Christmas songs to listen to each year, and the odds that any would turn out to be essential are low. That’s especially true when the artist performing the song is, rather than a professional musician, a professional football player. If you’re a Cowboys fan, and therefore reflexively hate the Eagles, you may have been inclined to click that link for a satisfying opportunity to hate on what is an objectively very silly-sounding idea. However—and it brings us no joy to report this—we must admit that “Pretty Paper,” as performed by the Philly Specials (a collection of Eagles offensive linemen including Johnson, Jason Kelce, and Jordan Mailata), is kind of . . . great.
The recording is generally pretty straightforward, not much different from the version Willie himself recorded on his 1979 Christmas album of the same name (which clocks in at number 26 on our definitive ranking of Willie albums). It has a simple rhythm section, some slide guitar, and pleasantly strummed guitar chords. But Johnson, a native of the East Texas city of Groveton (population: 918), has a pleasant baritone, and he sings “Pretty Paper” like a true country dude, connecting to the song like someone who heard the version by Willie—or perhaps by Roy Orbison, Asleep at the Wheel, Kenny Chesney, or any of the other artists who’ve performed the tune—a hundred times every holiday season growing up. Crutchfield, whose 2022 collaboration with Texas indie rocker Jess Williamson as the country duo Plains was a revelation of harmonies that recalled the best of the early Chicks, intermingles her voice with his in a way that elevates the track into one of the lovelier renditions of “Pretty Paper” you’re likely to hear this Christmas. We’re as shocked as you are.
It’s sort of baffling that the Philly Specials exist as a recording project. But Johnson clearly has Christmas joy in his heart, and Kelce is now music industry–adjacent—not sure if you’ve heard, but apparently his brother is dating Taylor Swift. (The two Kelces duet on a spin through Celtic punk band the Pogues’ “Fairytale of New York,” making it possible to create a Christmas playlist that includes performances by both Swift and Travis Kelce.) Mailata, meanwhile, is a genuinely terrific vocalist; he was a star contestant as Thingamabob on season seven of The Masked Singer, and elsewhere on the album, he delivers a soulful take on Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You.” Even so, it is unusual for that combination of interests and talent to result in not one but two Christmas albums.
But then, maybe it’s not that unusual. Bizarre as the group’s existence may seem, they’re not even the first collection of NFC East offensive linemen to form a band together—that would be the 2010 Cowboys’ big men, who signed a recording contract as the heavy metal group Free Reign. And while Johnson is both Texan and seemingly too earnest for us to view his choice to cut “Pretty Paper” as a deliberate attempt to troll Cowboys fans, the Philly Specials have nodded to the rivalry in the past—on their previous Christmas album, last year’s A Philly Special Christmas, Mailata, overcome with the Christmas spirit while making a guest appearance on “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town,” declares, “I want to wish everyone a merry Christmas—even Dallas!” In that same spirit, we’ll keep Johnson’s rendition of “Pretty Paper” on our holiday playlists as the NFL season enters the home stretch—but when the playoffs come around, of course, all bets are off.
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