Many years ago, my parents borrowed a copy of the record album “John Denver and The Muppets: A Christmas Together” and made a bootleg cassette tape copy. (It turns out the album accompanied a 1979 television special of the same name, which I’ve never seen.) For years, my parents played it every year at Christmas. I decided it was my favorite Christmas album as a teenager, and a few years later I spirited the tape away with me when I moved out after college.
As common as genre-crossing musical mash-ups have become, the pairing of Jim Henson’s zany puppets with Mr. “Rocky Mountain High” still seems a little odd — right up there with asking David Bowie to sing with Bing Crosby.
And, to be honest, Denver is usually upstaged by his foam-rubber costars. It doesn’t help that most of the songs that spotlight him were written just for the album, destined to join the endless list of other nice-but-not-very-memorable holiday songs littering the thousands of other Christmas records out there.
Denver doesn’t even sing on the album’s most entertaining song: The Electric Mayhem’s cover of “Little Saint Nick.” Dr. Teeth, manic drummer Animal, and the rest of the crew tear through the song with such authority that I didn’t believe it when someone later told me it was a Beach Boys song.
And yet, on other songs the Denver-Muppet match up just works. Denver has a priceless duet with Animal during a verse of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas,” with Denver struggling to maintain his poise while his partner grows dangerously frenzied.
Better still is Denver and Rowlf the Dog’s heartwarming rendition of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” It’s not played for laughs; it’s just unabashedly sentimental and optimistic (this was recorded long before the song’s original, depressing lyrics came back in vogue). Denver’s clear, high voice harmonizes with Rowlf’s warm, gravelly baritone, and suddenly it’s not about a star singing with a sock puppet — it’s about two old friends reminiscing and wishing for many more holidays together.
And I can’t imagine a better way to spend Christmas.