Along with all the other traditions that come with Christmas time – watching your favorite TV specials, getting together with family on Christmas Day, wondering how you ever lived without a pre-lit Christmas tree - one of the best ones involves breaking out the collection of Christmas music.
As a kid, it meant that the Bing Crosby and The Chipmunks Christmas albums make their way out of the buffet draw and take up a month-long residence on my mom’s stereo. Now, it means flipping over to my Christmas songs playlist on iTunes, where Patty Loveless, Dwight Yoakam and The Chieftains all are a part of the family’s Christmas soundtrack.
Seeing as how Christmas has more beloved songs than any other holiday around, Leeann Ward and I have put together a list of some of their favorite renditions of classic holiday songs. Feel free to add your own personal favorites in the comments section.
Song #1: Twelve Days of Christmas
Leeann: John Denver and the Muppets
Not a particularly high brow pick, but neither is this Christmas classic anyway. The juxtaposition of Denver’s straight delivery and the Muppets’ goofiness is especially delightful. What’s more, the way Miss Piggy revels in making the typically drawn out “Five golden rings” line even longer than usual is somehow endearing.
Sam: Bela Fleck & the Flecktones
As fun as the song is, even the merriest of people get a little tired of it by the time it gets around to the leaping lords and the dancing ladies. Fleck and company decide to ratchet up the degree of difficulty by performing each day in a different key and a different time signature — AND include some Tuvan throat singing to boot.
Though his career lasted about two years and ended tragically more than 50 years ago, Buddy Holly continues to impact and influence the music world. Part of it is his mystique: unlike many of his contemporaries, Holly never grew old, never had a scandal derail his career and never found himself wasting away on some oldies circuit. He’s the eternally young, energetic, slightly geeky-looking rock & roller with the hiccup in his voice and a Fender Stratocaster in his hands.
Mystique only goes so far, though. Holly left behind a strong collection of songs that have aged extremely well – mainly because they’re constantly being reinvented. His songs have been covered by hundreds of singers, across every music genre imaginable. Just this year alone, in commemoration of his 75th birthday, Buddy Holly tribute albums have featured both of the surviving Beatles, Lyle Lovett, Florence + The Machine, My Morning Jacket, Cee Lo Green and Justin Townes Earle.
Add to that mix Words of Love: Songs of Buddy Holly by Nashville’s Paul Burch. Much like the way Holly’s music has a timeless quality, Burch’s combination of classic country, blues and rock & roll has its roots in the 1950s and ’60s but never sounds dated. Beginning with 1998′s Pan-American Flash through 2009′s Still Your Man, Burch has released a series of critically acclaimed albums and recorded with luminaries such as Ralph Stanley and Mark Knopfler.
Burch’s admiration of Holly comes from both the love of his music and an appreciation for what he managed to accomplish in the short time he recorded.
“Holly was the arranger, the producer, the writer, the rhythm guitar player, the singer and the lead guitar player,” Burch says. “He balanced all that at the age of 22 and has at least 20 songs that everybody knows, being in the business for about two years before he was killed. Like him or not, you just don’t come across an artist like that very much.”
Burch says that he first heard Buddy Holly’s music on the “American Graffiti” soundtrack, and as he got more involved with rock & roll, the appreciation for Holly grew.
“My voice is pitched near his, so it’s easy for me to sing,” he says. “But I find that of all the rock & rollers that I adored growing up, Holly’s music is something that I can sing now that I’m older. The words are good, the chords are good, the songs are good, but they’re just very slightly underdeveloped.”
He attributes that to Holly’s producer, Norman Petty, who was a pop producer and didn’t have the same rock and R&B sensibilities that Holly had. As a result, the songs are developed enough for Holly to become successful, but they also allow for many interpretations. Burch, for instance, adds fiddle and accordion to the Holly classic “Rave On!” to give it a Cajun feel.
“You can do anything with them because they’re great songs,” Burch says.
Words of Love wasn’t intended to be a full-fledged album; Burch and members of his band, The WPA Ballclub, went into the studio just to record a Holly song, possibly as a single. In that regard, it didn’t vary from the type of recording that Burch and the band normally do.
“Recording for us is fun, and we just do it on a semi-regular basis,” he explains. “Often, I’ll bring in various incarnations of the band together just to get us on tape, to make sure we had a record of what we sound like.
“For me, that’s a healthy way to approach recording,” he adds. “There’s something about [recording] where I allow it to be a bit sprawling, so I don’t truncate the process.”
Burch initially went into the studio with his usual touring band, drummer Marty Lynds and bassist Jim Gray, and in the span of a couple of hours, they had recorded four Holly songs, all on the first or second take. He then brought in some of the band members who contribute to Burch’s records but don’t usually tour with him, and the same thing happened.
“Every time we went into the studio, we’d record four or five songs,” he says.
Burch says that Words of Love was not meant to be a Holly “best-of” album. Along with familiar Holly hits like “Peggy Sue” and “Think It Over,” there are lesser-known gems like “Blue Days, Black Nights” and “Midnight Shift.” With the WPA Ballclub at the top of its game (the band in its various incarnations also includes Jen Gunderman on accordion, Fats Kaplin on fiddle, Dennis Crouch on upright bass and Tommy Perkinson on drums) and a bunch of great songs, it’s a cohesive album that pays tribute to a talented artist but still fits nicely into Burch’s catalog.
As it was such an impromptu album – Burch didn’t even use lyric sheets on any of the songs – there was little advance planning done. When he and the band did listen to Holly recordings, they shied away from the familiar finished takes and turned to rarer live recordings or rehearsals. Those performances showed more grit than Holly was able to generate in the studio.
“Holly was far ahead of his time in thinking of a studio as a place to make a unique-sounding recording, different from how you would perform it on stage,” Burch says. “On stage, The Crickets were a tough, lean rock & roll band, but in the studio they could be a little more delicate, using boxes for drums or a celesta piano, which you can’t hear very well on stage.
“That was the one thing I wanted to do,” he adds. “Turn the bass and drums up whenever it was possible. It’s not always easy to do, because there’s so much wonderful delicacy to Holly’s music. But when it was possible to bring in some dirt, I tried to do that.”
In recording the songs, Burch was more concerned about capturing the feel of the songs than staying true to the technical aspects of Holly’s music. He played a Stratocaster on some tracks, like Holly did, but he didn’t feel obliged to using it on every song, He didn’t stick to Holly’s arrangements, either. Burch’s version of “Not Fade Away,” for instance, has no chord changes. He came up with that idea after listening to a rehearsal take of Holly and his drummer, Jerry Allison, playing Bo Diddley’s “Mona.”
“It was just so cool to hear a loud acoustic guitar and a loud drum,” Burch says. “There were no vocals; they were just getting into a groove. I thought about writing something off of it, but then I thought “Not Fade Away” doesn’t need those chord changes.”
Words of Love represents not only a tribute to one of Burch’s heroes, it also represents a turning point in his career, though even he isn’t entirely sure what is coming next.
“It feels like the band and myself are turning a very positive corner,” he explains. “I’m quite satisfied with the last couple records, and I think we’re starting to achieve some things live which are quite interesting. So I thought that before we go off in another direction that’s quite different from our other records, it would be nice to put a cap on that and do an album of standards. It’s an end of the beginning and the beginning of the next part.
“It may not be that much of a change, but it feels like it has the potential to go into some interesting areas for us. We’ll just have to see.”
No, this isn’t Alan Jackson covering The Flatlanders, although that would have been phenomenal. Rather, this is Jackson performing right in his sweet spot: a simple enough song, yet with some clever lyrics, a generous dose of pedal steel and Jackson’s typical smooth, agreeable vocals. “Dallas” may not be Jackson at his most experimental (see “I’ll Go On Loving You”) or mainstream (“Chattahoochee”), but it’s a pleasant little gem in a very rich catalog of music.
Seriously though, what was the narrator thinking in trying to get a girl named “Dallas” to be happy outside of Texas? And in Nashville of all places, where country music is all fake and the radio stations don’t play at least one Willie Nelson song every hour. That’s just asking for heartbreak – though it does make for a good song.
Got a little boom in my big truck/Gonna open up the doors and turn it up. – “Country Girl (Shake It for Me)”
Girl you make my speakers go boom boom/Dancin’ on the tailgate in the full moon. – “Drunk on You”
Looking at those two lyrics from Luke Bryan’s new album, you can assume one of two things: Either Bryan was heavily influenced by hip-hop pioneers L’Trimm and their hit “Cars With the Boom,” or Tailgates & Tanlines falls victim to lazy songwriting. With all due respect to Tigra and Bunny, it looks like it’s the latter.
The country references are thrown about so fast and furiously here that duplicates inevitably pop up. There are multiple references to girls dancing on tailgates, squirrels and other assorted critters, moonshine, Dixie cups, dusty boots, old trucks, catfish and tractors. Sometimes the songs are about certain people or places, and sometimes they’re just about setting the RRPM (rural references per minute) record.
Occasionally, the country setting is put to good use. “Harvest Time,” for example, paints a vivid picture of a small town in the middle of its busiest season. “Tailgate Blues” takes many of the familiar references and turns them upside down, as even the usual comforts of quiet country hideaways can’t heal a broken heart.
All too often, though, the songs have no real meat underneath the catchphrases and references. They’re the same tired look at a vast hillbilly paradise – Val-holler, if you will – where the homemade wine is always flowing into Dixie cups, good ol’ boys are always ready to drive around in their trucks to find a good time after a hard day’s work on the farm, and the women are sexual props whose only purpose in life is to dance on tailgates on command.
When Alan Jackson sang “Chattahoochee,” there was so much detail that the listener felt certain that Jackson lived through all those experiences. Bryan’s “Muckalee Creek Water,” by comparison, has no such connection or personal attachment, even though there is a Muckalee Creek near Bryan’s hometown in south Georgia. That song, incidentally, references “a catfish line going bump bump bump,” so if you’re really into onomatopoeia, this is your album of the year.
The real shame is that those throw-away songs are a waste of some tremendous talent. Bryan has a strong voice that can make a good song sound even better. “You Don’t Know Jack,” written by Erin Enderlin and Shane McAnally, gives a sympathetic portrayal to someone trapped by addiction. Sure, it won’t get a concert audience cheering and shouting, but it’s a standout track and one of the better songs of the year. While he is partly responsible for some of the album’s weakest tracks, Bryan also co-wrote some of its best, including “Harvest Time” and “Faded Away” (with Rodney Clawson and Michael Carter, respectively).
“Country Girl (Shake It for Me)” is turning into one of the biggest hits of Bryan’s career, which is bound to influence his future song choices. Good-time party anthems aren’t necessarily bad things, but too many of them on one album overwhelms the rest of the songs. Still, Kenny Chesney had to go through the “She Think My Tractor’s Sexy” phase before he got to covering Guy Clark, so there’s hope for Bryan.
Just leave the “booms” and “bumps” to fight sequences in the old Batman TV show, where they belong.
On his new album, Eric Church sings that we need “Some longhaired hippie prophet preaching from the book of Johnny Cash/A sheep among the wolves there standing tall/We need a country music Jesus to come and save us all.”
Bear in mind that he’s singing these lines on an album loaded with distorted vocals and sound effects, guitar solos closer to Three Doors Down than Cash, and a song about Bruce Springsteen.
That’s not to say that Chief is a bad album, because there are a lot of keepers in its 11 tracks – some of them are even country songs. It just seems odd to be calling for Country Music Jesus when you’re acting like one of the money-changers in the temple.
Church’s willingness to incorporate different stylistic elements does keep things interesting. “Creepin’” kicks the album off with a swampy vibe and ends up being even catchier than “Smoke a Little Smoke.” “Homeboy” unexpectedly includes a harp flourish or two with the hard rock guitars, while “Springsteen” manages to capture that Springsteen sound without sounding like a ripoff of one of The Boss’ hits. On the flip side, “Keep On” attempts to blend the bravado from a Toby Keith song, a guitar lick possibly lifted from an episode of “CHIPs”, and some guy in the background repeating random words from the verses. It just doesn’t work on any level.
Fortunately, all the production tricks don’t often get in the way of a strong collection of songs. The two best ones, “Over When It’s Over” and “Hungover & Hard Up,” were written by Church and Luke Laird and tackle the aftermath of a failed relationship. In particular, “Over When It’s Over” nicely expresses the frustration of having a good thing fall apart.
“Homeboy,” written by Church and Casey Breathard, is the most interesting lyrically. In lesser hands, this could have been about a farmboy wooing his wayward brother back home with a list of wonderful things about country living (sweet tea, parties in the barn, etc. etc.). Instead, Church gives a much more realistic portrayal (“Ain’t a glamorous life but it’ll keep you out of jail”), and he and Breathard deserve credit for creating characters with depth and for avoiding a simplified happy ending.
Then there are the requisite drinking songs like “Drink In My Hand,” “I’m Gettin’ Stoned” and “Jack Daniels.” There’s nothing inherently wrong with them, but they all have a retread feel about them and aren’t nearly as compelling as the other tracks. The lyrics have just enough of an edge to help bolster Church’s outlaw rep but not enough to be actually controversial. So expect to hear Church singing about shoving overtime up his boss’ can or how Jack Daniels kicked his ass on the radio soon.
If you’re looking for Country Music Jesus, Chief may not be the answer to your prayers. On the whole, though, Church has put together one of the most ambitious and interesting albums that mainstream country music has seen all year.