W21Music's Guide to an Americana Christmas!
With Christmas nearly upon us, there comes a time when you have to put away your normal country, folk and Americana records and listen to some more traditional fare. However maybe this year need not be all Slade and Band Aid and with some judicious searching your home can still be treated to a bit of Christmas counbtry! There is stuff here for every type of Christmas so grab a mince pie and see if something takes your fancy.
Assuming you wanted to compile you own carol service you could surely do no better than grouping the following together. Things could start in uplifting fashion with Devon Mayson's "Hark The Herald Angels Sing", the first verse sung a capella before it opens up into a version with drums, banjo and guitar, and even a fiddle solo, I remember seeing it live last Christmas at the 100 Club where it was truly outstanding and this version captures the spirit of that night.
Perhaps to bring the mood down a little we could go for Ward Thomas's "In The Bleak Midwinter", while not the most exciting of tunes you can settle back and enjoy the harmonies on this a capella version which was released with royalties going to the Homeless Veterans Appeal and the Volksbund Organization. They opened the first of their 2017 Christmas shows with this very song.
For "Silent Night" there are a couple of choices, Red Sky July have a slow cross harmonic version that comes with a gently strummed guitar and is so Christmassy you can almost feel the snow falling, it also comes with one of the slowest guitar solo's you'll ever hear! Sara Beth's version has the feeling of a gathering at a small church, it starts with a piano and opens up to include drums and a fiddle. This carol just invites the cross over vocals and SaraBeth's is equally a great version as it is different. Red Sky July are obviously keen Christmas fans, they have a whole EP of songs and some more on top so we will definitely go to them for "O Little Town Of Bethlehem" where the tune is reinvented beyond recognition and achieves the mix of keeping a cracking tune ( that they might regret not using for something else!) while keeping the original words.
American country stars tend to knock out Christmas albums as a rite of passage so you can virtually type in any artist and something will come up. There are a couple of gems that you might have missed from one of the stars of Buckle & Boots 2017. Jenn Bostic's "Hope Of The World" comes laden with quite possibly the biggest choir on all of the Christmas songs i've listened to and is a real joyful listen, her other entry also released last year is a more homespun take on Xmas with "cookies in the oven". "mistletoe" and "kisses" while managing to keep hold of the inspirational choir for something of a funky take on Christmas. If you can find it, there was also a remarkable Christmas song from the then 16 year old Erin Kinsey one of the Pop up stars of C2C 2016, "Carol Of The Bells" is glorious multi tracked vocals over an almost eerie piano - one of the best and also slightly creepiest Christmas songs ever!
Last year also saw the release of "A Silverado Christmas" which includes versions from a number of artists that you'll probably be less familiar with such Zack Dyer, Joe Diffie or Gabe Burdulis - Zack in particular released an EP worthy of attention this year. Another recording well worth investigating is Mindy Smith's "Snowed In" EP, where "Tomorrow Is Christmas Day" starts things off and shows absolutely no compromise between matching Christmas sentiment to a great tune, the same is true of the title track "Snowed In". There is also "What Child Is This" which matches the words of a carol to "Greensleeves" which I gather will be more familiar to US listeners. The EP closes more traditionally with "Silent Night" & "Auld Lang Syne" setting the benchmark for Christmas EP's. Also available is Sean McConnells stark 21st century retelling of the Christmas story "Mary & Joe"- that is quite possibly the best Christmas songs of recent years, just guitar and harmonica and Sean's vocals.
Until last year I don't think i'd ever heard Joni Mitchells "The River, which is a bit shameful as it is on her classic album "Blue" however all of a sudden you could not move for versions arriving from all directions on social media, Ward Thomas played it live at The Roundhouse and at this years Christmas shows, and you can take your choice of versions from Tracey Thorn, the Cast of Glee, even Michael Ball! but i'll highlight Blair Dunlop's version as he gave it away free last Christmas as a present, which is in keeping with the season. it's a gentle version with delicately picked guitar from one of Britains finest singer songwriters.
Another song of the period is "White Christmas" the holiday classic, and again choices are available Lewis & Leigh have a glorious if perfunctory 1.35 version that has them gathered around one acoustic guitar while Red Sky July naturally have their own version with a slide guitar giving it an almost dreamlike feel.
Not too many UK artists have gone for the full out implicit Christmas song so it is definitely worth mentioning Raintown's "Still Believe (Love this time of year)" a rocking tribute to Christmas that would easily nestle alongside Slade and Wizzard with it's full on choir - a UK country Christmas classic without a doubt! It seems no group has embraced Christmas more than Red Sky July so as well as there aforementioned EP there are a couple of other singles than can be mopped up, "Save Christmas Day For Me" is Shelly spelling out how special that one day of the year is while "Christmas Time" starts with bells and is a quite uplifting piece of music. Hattie Briggs and Natalie Holmes also released a limited edition take on the yuletide season with "Christmas Bells", sweet vocals around a gentle acoustic guitar, while or a song that evokes both Christmas and country why not try Thorne Hill's take on John Denver's "Christmas For Cowboys" with some almost angelic vocals over just .a piano. Finding Katy Hurt's "Christmas Wish" hidden on my ipod was a bit like finding a diamond ring at the bottom of your stocking - it's a little gem waiting to be discovered.
Songs don't need to implicitly mention Christmas to be a Christmas song, some just need to invoke that feeling. Into this category i'd place The Black Feathers. "Winter Moves In" is another more sombre take on what happens to the old and homeless at Christmas. A gentle guitar and a cello really helps paint a quite bleak picture and the exquisite vocals counteract the harshness of the weather describe outside.A good companion piece would be "Christmas Song" by Reg Meuross which shines the light on those for whom Christmas is perhaps not quite the festive period. It's a humbling song of someone fallen on hard times with Reg perfectly capturing the voice of the person that we all to often walk past without a second thought.
Any house not playing Bob Dylans's "Must Be Santa" must surely have "Bah humbug" scrawled on their door, ideally best heard with the accompanying video with the spokesman for a generation in an uncharacteristic cheery mood. For many, the yuletide season may be best typified by "Please Daddy ( don't get drunk this Christmas)", the strangely saccharin original version by John Denver suggests Daddy might have had a glass of sherry too much while the version by the Decemberists is a bit more passionate including a 3 syllable pronounciation of Kerr-ist-mas!
Those with a somewhat liberal mind might like to be entertained by Steve Black & Alan West's reinvention of Christmas Carols, best played out of the earshot of any young ears though I can testify that the X rated tale of what happened to Steve's appendage to the tune "Walking in a Winter Wonderland" was remarkably well received by the elder folk in our household!
Christmas comes but once a year so feel free to dig out some of these tunes while you wait for 2018 when it will be "another year over a new one just begun" -
Merry Christmas from all at W21Music