With the holiday season fast approaching the Red Guitar Music team thought it might be time to take a look at some of the seasonal music released this year. Now I will admit, grudgingly, to having a reputation for being a little bah humbug with regard to all things tinsel and fairy lights. Rumours that I make Ebenezer Scrooge look like Father Christmas are really only rumours (honest) so without further ado here is the Red Guitar Music Xmas round-up.
Country music and the holiday season seem to go hand in hand just ask ex Sugarland singer Jennifer Nettles who’s fronted the CMA Country Christmas TV show for seven years now. With this is mind let’s start with a bonafide country music legend Loretta Lynn who previously released an album of holiday music in 1966……so this new album ‘White Christmas Blue’ is a rare event. Loretta is still going strong at 84 and her new ‘White Christmas Blue’ album is part of a recently inked multi-album deal with Legacy Recordings. This is as traditional as you’d expect, Loretta sounds in good voice, and a mix of original material such as the Shawn Camp co-written title track and ‘Country Christmas’ sit comfortably alongside pop standards such as ‘Winter Wonderland’ while she even finds time for a carol or three including versions of ‘Away In A Manger’ and ‘Silent Night’. The album concludes with a spoken word ‘Twas the Night before Christmas’ which is handy for remembering the names of the reindeer...Donner, Blitzen etc. So if you like your Christmas music very traditional this should be ideal to keep the grandparents entertained while you rustle up the Christmas lunch.
Garth Brooks & Trisha Yearwood must be the most famous couple in country music and an album of duets ‘Christmas Together’ seems like a great idea. Garth is back at the peak of his powers releasing albums, touring and winning awards like you’d never know he’d been away from the scene while Trisha has a great voice, and she sounds absolutely terrific here, but her last full studio album of new material was way back in 2007 which is far too long away. The 11 tracks on offer rush by in a sprightly 28 mins so there’s no time to get bored or complacent here. The couple take turns for the most part handling lead vocals, so this isn’t entirely a duets album in the true sense of the word but it works well. Highlights include Trisha delivering a very sexy and sassy take on ‘Santa Baby’ and a silky smooth ‘What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?’ sounds lovely while Garth has fun with ‘Ugly Christmas Sweater’ which even managed to get my cynical self to crack half a smile. When the duo do combine for a true duet on a swingin’ version of The Duke Ellington standard ‘I’m Beginning To See The Light’ they do a great job and display some nice chemistry which is very endearing. The album concludes with ‘What I’m Thankful for (The Thanksgiving Song)’ which features Garth trading vocals with James Taylor which is a classy way to round things off. A nice album that will appeal to fans of both artists and lovers of holiday music……and there are better pictures of the couple in the booklet.
If you’re looking for a different take on traditional Christmas music look no further than ‘Christmas Memories’ from legendary Australian guitarist Tommy Emmanuel who manages to capture plenty of tradition and throw in some mighty fine playing. The likes of ‘Jingle Bell Rock’ and especially ‘Jingle Bells’ where he trades musical chops with fellow CGP John Knowles demonstrate plenty of dexterity and a fun approach that is really refreshing (I’ve heard quite a few Christmas tunes by this point in the review cycle). If you’re new to Tommy Emmanuel the CGP tag has only been awarded to five guitarists in the world by Chet Atkins….nuff said. The songs here do have vocals with Annie Sellick doing a fine job but Tommy effortlessly finds room for some lovely playing and I must say I’m enjoying his jazzy take on the tunes. ‘Winter Wonderland’ just exudes playfulness and reeks of a good time while ‘White Christmas’ gets a new lease of life thanks to the guitar playing and Pat Bergeson’s harmonica. The album also features three original compositions of which the instrumental ‘Christmas Memories’ is a standout especially when it morphs into ‘Waltzing Matilda’ which adds an Aussie spin to proceedings before the album concludes, harmonica to the fore, with an inventive run through of ‘Amazing Grace’. A terrifically fun record that I’ll be happy spinning this Christmas, and for many more to come, at RGM towers. Highly recommended.
Kacey Musgraves steps up to the plate next with ‘A Very Kacey Christmas’ and hits it out of the park with a really lovely rendition of ‘Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas’ with plenty of twang, steel guitar and a choir of backing vocalists. Kacey, her band and guests including Willie Nelson who pops up appropriately on ‘A Willie Nice Christmas’ have really embraced the holiday season which is impressive as they recorded the album during the summer months in a studio decked out with Christmas trees, stockings and a snowflake machine…. On ‘A Very Kacey Christmas’ the original material really shines, from the melancholy but beautiful ‘’Christmas Makes Me Cry’ to a duet with fellow Texan Leon Bridges on the wonderful country soul of ‘Present Without A Bow’ the quality of the writing is impressive as is the 60’s Phil Spector inspired pop of ‘Ribbons And Bows’ all of which highlight her versatility. Christmas should be about fun and Kacey obviously has absolutely no shame (in a good way) as she runs through the ridiculous ‘I Want A Hippopotamus For Christmas’ and gives ‘Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer’ just the right amount of western swing while ‘Christmas Don’t Be Late’ is indeed the tune that made Alvin, Simon and Theodore pop stars. Kacey Musgraves has obviously taken the Christmas album very seriously (while still having fun) and she has passed this particular right of country music passage with flying colours.
Now Chris Young has had a very successful year with his recent Cassadee Pope duet ‘Think Of You’ adding to a string of No.1 singles in the USA (luckily Chris is no stranger to the UK and will be back in 2017 at the Country2Country Festival). For his first stab at the Christmas album Chris has enlisted some top line help and the result is a traditional take on the genre which will appeal to his fans. Opener ‘The Christmas Song’ is a little workmanlike but Chris is in fine voice while a rousing ‘Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) works much better for me personally with Chris stretching out vocally and just seems to be loads more fun (Derek Wells even finds space for a nice guitar break). Alan Jackson pops by for ‘There’s A New Kid In Town’ which he originally recorded as a duet with Keith Whitley in 1993 and this reworking works really well as the duo sound good together and the song is important for those who prefer the true meaning of Christmas over the commercial side of things. This theme continues with the Brad Paisley duet ‘The First Noel’ missing the mark for me but Boys II Men add vocals to ‘Silent Night’ which is very effective. The real surprise here is the original material (both Chris Young co-writes) with ‘It Must Be Christmas’ and ‘Under The Weather’ sounding really good and effortlessly capturing the spirit of classic Christmas songs. If I was RCA/Sony I’d be getting videos of these on heavy rotation now and they stand a decent chance of becoming holiday regulars.
Last but far from least we have Cara Dillon with ‘Upon A Winter’s Night’ which captures the themes of Christmas at their most traditional and will surely become essential listening for listeners to whom their faith is the most important thing about this time of year. Cara Dillon, her husband Sam Lakeman and a host of talented players (including Luke Daniels an artist previously featured at Red Guitar Music) have taken a mix of original material, traditional songs and hymns and combined them into a whole that is really quite beautiful. I‘m well outside my comfort zone here as far as attempting to review ‘Upon A Winter’s Night’ but really this is a highly impressive album that on occasion leaves the listener stunned by the beauty of the material and the passion of the players. Highlights abound here but a stunning arrangement of ‘The Wexford Carol’ with the fiddle of Niall Murphy to the fore is wonderful. Cara Dillon won the All-Ireland singing trophy at just 14 and her debut album in 2001 was a multi-award winner at the BBC Folk Awards and it is that voice, as pure and clean as I’ve heard in many a day that anchors the album, she never over sings and her voice is light, airy sometimes not much more than a whisper and the effect is quite lovely. ‘O Come O Come Emmanuel’ highlights her vocal abilities with just Lakeman’s piano for company the result is spellbinding, while an original song ‘Standing by My Christmas Tree’ borrows from the traditional ‘Silent Night’ and proves to be a perfect combination of the old and the new. A musically unaccompanied take on another traditional song ‘O Holy Night’ finds Cara joined by her sister Mary and the resulting harmonies are a joy which reinforces the theory (that I recently heard put forward by Sue Ennis songwriter and long-time friend of Ann & Nancy Wilson of Heart fame) that harmonies are best if bonded by blood (The Everly Brothers, The Brothers Gibb etc.). The album concludes with another original composition the hauntingly ethereal ‘Mother Mary’ a really fine way to end a very fine record. ‘Upon A Winter’s Night’ is a gorgeous album that will be essential listening for many this holiday season.