As a tumultuous and difficult year draws to a close, it's the perfect time to put out a Christmas album, and plenty of artists -- from Carrie Underwood to Dolly Parton -- have risen to the occasion.

Home Free are also among the acts rounding out the year with a much-needed dose of holiday cheer, though the all-vocal group's second tenor, Rob Lundquist, shares that the band made the decision to put out their new record well before the novel coronavirus-spurred shutdowns hit the U.S. in early 2020.

"We worked really hard to get the album done before we went to Europe in February," Lindquist explains of the recording process behind Warmest Winter, Home Free's third Christmas project.

"We were doing it in between tours, just trying to get it done really fast -- and in hindsight, it looks like we actually had a lot of time we could have used to record the album!" he adds with a laugh.

Pandemic or no pandemic, Home Free have always been big fans of Christmas and Christmas music. Their previously released holiday collections, Full of Cheer and Full of (Even More) Cheer, are testaments to the bandmates' mutual love of the season. But leaving aside a simple love of the holidays, Lundquist says that the band gets a lot of gratification about returning to Christmas music as performers, too.

"We spend the whole year singing our regular country tunes, which are really fun, don't get me wrong, but it's nice to have a little change every once in a while. A lot of times, you know, these songs mean a lot," he comments.

Warmest Winter is a mix of holiday classics and original songs. One of those originals -- the title track, which high tenor Austin Brown co-wrote with Emma Brooke and Steven Martinez -- is especially meaningful because it touches on a personal memory from Brown's life.

"I think he's going to have a hard time actually performing it, because it's so real," notes Lundquist. "It comes from personal experiences, you know, with losing his grandma. So I think [singing Christmas music] just sometimes maybe allows us to get a little bit more emotional and show off some more vulnerable sides."

For the band, that's the magic of Christmas and Christmas music: Perhaps even more than other kinds of songs, these tracks tap into the deepest and most cherished experiences of a person's life. So when it came to writing original material for the album, the group's primary songwriters, Brown and bass singer Tim Foust, dug deep in order to get to the heart of what's special about the season.

"I think [great Christmas music] is whenever you can convey a message that can relate to most people, and I know that both Austin and Tim were able to really tap into that," Lundquist points out. "It's a time to hang out with family, to experience each other, love each other. And, yeah, they both were able to really tap into that on this album."

Warmest Winter stands out from Home Free's previous two holiday collections in another way, too: It features a couple of high-profile collaborations, including a rendition of Alabama's "Christmas in Dixie" featuring none other than the country trio's frontman, Randy Owen. As longtime fans of Alabama, who came of age listening to the iconic group to learn vocal harmony, the bandmates were beside themselves to have Owen sign on for a duet.

"Oh man, we were so stoked that was able to happen," gushes Lundquist, explaining that the partnership dates back to a run of shows at which Home Free opened for Alabama a few years ago. "They actually knew of our work, which completely blew our minds ... And we've been wanting an excuse to be able to collaborate with them on something on an album, and we all grew up with "Christmas in Dixie." We love that song. We called them, and they said, 'Absolutely.'"

Despite the fact that they decided to make Warmest Winter before the onset of the pandemic, music -- and life -- has admittedly taken on a different meaning for the bandmates in 2020. For Lundquist, the time off the road has had a silver lining: He's been able to stay at home more with his two young children, a 4-year-old daughter and a 2-year-old son.

"I have never, not in the last 15 years, been home for eight months. I don't wanna say 'blessing,' but there were definitely positive things that came out of it," he notes. "When I got home from Europe in March, my 2-year-old son wasn't really saying full sentences, or anything like that. Now, he is talking like crazy. And I didn't really get to experience that with my daughter, because I was gone all the time. So as awful as it's been, it's been a really special time for me."

Particularly because of the unique circumstances of this year, one of the songs on Warmest Winter that stands out to Lundquist is "What We Need Is Love," a track that isn't even necessarily specifically about the holidays. Co-written by Foust with Ernie Halter, its message is so central to the band that it's the first song they put out ahead of the album's release, and the last one in its tracklist.

"I just felt like that's a very appropriate song to put out right now, with how crazy everything is," reflects Lundquist. "I felt like it could appeal to a lot of people all over the country, and, yeah, we just thought that one was really special.

"It doesn't need to be on a Christmas album, per se. But we just loved the message so much," he adds.

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