It doesn’t take long for the familiar sounds of the season to become infuriating—saccharine selections by Michael Bublé and American Idol survivors clog up almost all the public ambient space from Halloween to New Year’s Day, challenging the best holiday spirits not to turn into scrooges and grinches. Underneath the all-too familiar tinsel, though, there’s a whole winter wonderland of enjoyable Christmas music, and stories to go with it. We asked some local musicians to tell theirs.
Jangle Bell Rock
During the 1980s, when the American independent music scene was flourishing, a core group of oddball power-poppers from North Carolina were considered to be among the originators. Chris Stamey, his former band the dB’s, and Mitch Easter were at the forefront of the movement, having paved the way for the likes of R.E.M. and others.
At the height of the era, Stamey, who always had a penchant for unusual side projects, and his band released Christmas Time, a nifty album featuring special guests the dB’s, who performed the title track with their former bandmate. Other songs featured members of the Stamey Group—Mary McMillan, Cathy Harrington, and Ted Lyons—singing on new holiday standards such as “Sha La La,” “You’re What I Want (for Christmas),” and Lyons’ hilarious “Liberty Valance”-like “The Only Law that Santa Claus Understood.”
The compilation was reissued on CD in the early ’00s in an expanded form, under the name Christmas Time (Again), and credited to the dB’s. Added to the mix were many gems, including the deeBs’ cover of “Feliz Navidad” and its kick-ass B-side, “Holiday Spirit,” with it’s insanely catchy “gimme, gimme, gimme, gimme” chorus. Also included are selections from such like-minded musical acts as Marshall Crenshaw, Big Star (the classic “Jesus Christ,” from Third/Sister Lovers), Don Dixon, Whiskeytown, and Alex Chilton’s non-ironic take on “The Christmas Song”—you know, “Chestnuts roasting,” etc., etc.
Sure, there are few numbers that stretch the definition of Christmas song, especially on the original LP version. But all in all, the entire collection is a fun exercise.
It’s a Christmas day tradition around our house. Besides, it’s the only holiday-themed record we own since somebody borrowed our copy of The Ventures’ Christmas Album and never returned it.
—Tim Lee of the Tim Lee 3
The Christmas Cover No One Wanted
In a lull between songwriting inspiration, Daniel Moore and I wanted to cover something. It was around Christmas, so why not a holiday song? It was 2001, and I had recently become obsessed with Claudine Longet, a B-lister from the late ’60s. She had recorded French-American pop for a decade and then killed her boyfriend.
“I Don’t Intend to Spend Christmas Without You” is a holiday love song she turned into a top-30 hit in 1967 that has now been forever ruined for me by our attempt at making our own version.
Daniel played a Nancy Sinatra beat on his drums, and I played a fake keyboard bass and other fake instruments on the real keyboard. Our friend who “played the flute” could manage one even tone per hour, so we sampled one of them, which Daniel used to get the rest of what we needed. At this point we were pretty tired of the whole thing, so we sampled the original parts of the song that we hadn’t gotten to yet, laughing at how terrible this was going.
The result was just a replica of the original with me singing over it. Who would rather hear me singing karaoke when they could have the French murderess do it instead?
I sent a CD of our final version to my family, who listened to it while talking about what’s on TV that night, and put it away to be forgotten until an Internet search of their son shows them this.
—Travis Gray of Mito Band (and Metro Pulse art director)
Christmas Time Is Here
I hate most jazz, but I love A Charlie Brown Christmas by Vince Guaraldi. It’s just rueful enough to make the joy real, plus it perfectly captures the warm, fuzzy, inebriated atmosphere I associate with the social observance of Christmas. Listen to “Christmas Is Coming” and see if you still feel homicidal. For my spiritual connection to Christmas, Sufjan Stevens’ breathy, heartbreakingly sincere versions of traditional sacred songs on Songs for Christmas really move me. His version of “Holy, Holy, Holy” is flawless. And I can’t not mention the Raveonettes, my play-the-grooves-off choice for this time of year. “The Christmas Song,” from the 2004 comp Maybe This Christmas Tree, has a swingy, adolescent sexual longing that’s so pure and so raw.
—Abby Wintker Burris of Three Man Band and Red Scare
The Nightmares Before Christmas
Let me start by saying that I love Christmas music. I love what it represents, and I love the fact that it has such a positive effect on people.
Most people, anyway.
Christmas music has played an important role in the growth and success of the Knoxville Jazz Orchestra. Throughout the group’s 14-year history, our annual Christmas concert has outperformed every other concert idea we’ve ever had by more than double. It has allowed us to move from performing in an abandoned bank building off of Market Square with a seating capacity of less than 100 to the gorgeous Tennessee Theatre, seating capacity 1,680. The 2012 release of our CD Christmas Time Is Here has helped us expand our audience even more, with extended radio play and critical acclaim across the U.S. and in Europe, South Africa, and Australia.
As the leader and chief organizer of the KJO, there is a different side to my own personal relationship with Christmas music, however. Because our Christmas concert is our biggest event of the year, it comes with its own unique challenges. There is nothing like the feeling of knowing that you’ve already sold hundreds tickets to an event, but you can’t find the music that you’re supposed to play; or realizing on the day of the show that you forgot to rent a piano; or having a key member of the band approach you five minutes before show time to say, “I’m sorry, but I have to leave and I won’t be back. Find someone to cover for me.” These things and more have actually happened, and the effect on my psyche has been profound.
About three or four times each year, at random intervals, I have a recurring nightmare. The exact details change from one dream to the next, but usually include a combination of the actual experiences listed above, coupled with the imagined idea of the audience either not showing up or walking out. Another key element of the dream is that I’m always naked.
The most recent dream happened a little more than a week ago. In this latest episode, I had just counted off our opening song when I realized that I had not yet laid eyes on our featured guest artist. When I got up from the trumpet section to go check the dressing rooms, I realized that I wasn’t wearing any pants. I felt the heat of the spotlight on my bare legs. The dream was so realistic at this point that I actually thought to myself, “Wow, this is just like that nightmare I always have.”
As I reached the bottom of the stairs leading to the Tennessee Theatre dressing rooms, I encountered the theater manager. “Have you seen the guest artist?” I asked.
“Yes, he’s in dressing room B with his personal physician,” he replied.
I find our featured guest lying on the floor on his back, an old gypsy woman huddled over him. A huge cauldron is bubbling over with a yellowish-greenish stew on one side of the room.
“He’ll be ready to perform any minute,” she snaps.
Our guest opens his eyes and seems very glad to see me. For a moment, I breathe a sigh of relief. Then he hands me a folder filled with the music that he has brought to perform. There’s not a single Christmas tune in the lot.
I begin to hurriedly explain that the show is billed as a Christmas concert and the audience is expecting to hear him perform Christmas music.
“But Vance,” he screams, “I’m Jewish!”
—Vance Thompson, director of the Knoxville Jazz Orchestra
A Christmas Collage
The recording of our second Christmas album concluded last night upon the indention of a tom.
Zach sleeps on the couch as I write, and the HVAC stutters and mumbles until finally, embarrassed by its plight, it lays down its hand and folds into silence.
The dining room is cluttered with reptilian cords and SM 57 dynamic microphones.
Balloons litter the front entrance, foliage the back, and the The Burial of Count Orgaz hangs beneath my ceiling.
The café across the street serves to those whose collars are blue and whose dreams are smoke-filled.
A small dock resides down the street and on nights when the fog emasculates and engulfs everything that interferes, you can hear Gen. Burnside march down Gay Street.
Songs for Christmas drifts through the ligneous hallways; the circuit breaker trips once more.
A small crack in my bedroom window transforms my quarters into a motel for the winter wind, and I serve as its lowly front-desk attendant.
This is the sixth holiday season without my father, the third with O Youth, and the first in this house.
Christmas is slowly coming into view.
—The members of O Youth
May Your Days Be Merry and Bright
My mother’s mother, who was very active in my upbringing, was not allowed to go to movie theaters as a child. Her devout Southern Baptist parents did not feel that this was appropriate for a girl of 1940s Harrogate, Tenn. But by the time I came along, movies were commonplace in our household. My mother and I lived with her parents and two brothers, so I was lucky. I was kind of always going to Grandma’s house.
There is no way to describe to you how much Hazel Gilbert loves Christmas. It’s the Oscars of our family. Not only is the season a very real expression of the amazing faith that my grandmother has, it is also the time of year that it’s okay to watch her favorite movie on loop without bugging the rest of us. Grandma Hazel has been quoted many times saying that there will never be another Bing Crosby. (If you can imagine Dolly Parton saying that, then you can hear Hazel, too. I swear.)
White Christmas is not only a family tradition for us, but one of my favorite films of all time and one of the best movie musicals ever made. Bing Crosby’s baritone slyness contrasts beautifully with Danny Kaye’s tenor absurdity in both dialogue and song. Add the inimitable (and surprisingly sexy) Rosemary Clooney and the dance fever of Vera Ellen, and you get Hollywood magic. This is one of those movies that I liked as a kid—and when I grew up, I realized that there was a good reason.
So my grandmother was watching movies on TV and all, but out of respect to her parents, she had never gone to an actual movie theater. That is, until a few years ago, when my mother and I surprised her by taking her to see White Christmas at the Tennessee Theater. On our way to the theater, she saw a poster for the event and squealed, “Oh, I know where you’re takin’ me!” It was perhaps the happiest I had ever seen her, and I was so proud to give her that moment and share it with my mother, her daughter.
We get inside the theater, where she had never been, ordered some popcorn and Coke, and sat down. I had explained to her about the organ, but I suppose that nothing can truly prepare you for that magic moment when Bill Snyder rides the Mighty Wurlitzer onto the stage. Seeing the whole thing through my grandmother’s eyes was like seeing them through the eyes of a child. It was epic.
So if I have a recommendation to you about Christmas entertainment this year, it is to find out what your White Christmas is. Choose to indulge in the sentimentality of it all. Do something for somebody besides going to Walmart. Do something with someone you’ve been meaning to thank. Make some music of your own.
And may all your Christmases be scruffy white.
—Christopher Hamblin of All Starr Management female impersonators and creator of Night of 1,000 Dollies
My Chipmunk Christmas
My father mentioned trying to fix his old turntable recently. It’s something I’ve heard for years, but now that he’s retired, it may happen.
I still cringe a little when I think about that turntable, because I’m to blame for its inactivity. I could also blame Christmas With the Chipmunks. Weirdly enough, that album was my gateway to sound manipulation.
Starting and stopping records always intrigued me. Those rising and falling pitch changes always caught my attention. Curious to discover the “real” voices of those squeaky-voiced rodents, I took matters into my own hands by slowing down the record. The normal-speed Chipmunk voice sounded like a boring monotone man—not too exciting. The bigger discovery was the multitude of noises I could create with sudden moves of the record. Screeching to warble to chirp—I became entranced by this creation of sound. Sampling, DJing, scratching, whatever you called it, I was easily amazed.
Nowadays, noisemakers and noise manipulators are what I consider part of my musical self. Whether I credit Alvin and the Chipmunks as my inspiration, it was at the very least the spark of an interest that I would continue into adulthood.
As for my dad’s record player, he has access to other, newer, working record players. If he wanted to play a record he could. At this point the record player is more about having a project to tinker with. Maybe I’ll help fix it to relieve some of my guilt.
—Jesse Wagner of Mare Vita
Plus: Christmas Albums That Should Never Have Been Recorded
A lovely thing about Christmas is that it’s compulsory, like a thunderstorm, and we all go through it together.
Christmas music is a lot like pornography—if no one ever made another porno film, the world would still have more than enough. But each year we will get a fresh batch of new Xmas songs and records. Here are just a few examples of why it needs to stop:
Songs for Christmas is a box set of five separate EPs of Christmas-related songs and carols recorded by independent musician Sufjan Stevens. Five EPs. Is there anything more indie than releasing multiple EPs when you could have released an album? Is there anything less Christmas than being indie? I will never slog through this batch of self-indulgent songs to ever know. To truly absorb a box set like this, you would have to listen to it beyond the actual holiday season. And what is more hip than listening to Christmas music in July? Recording Christmas music in July.
Some artists never should have touched Christmas music because they cannot help but ruin it. Bright Eyes released A Christmas Album a few years ago. This is not only a terrible record, start to finish, it is what you make your spouse listen to if you hate Christmas and think that calling Christmas trees holiday trees has lost its punch. If you are one of those people, put this record on and pretend you like it when you’re with a group. Have a suicide-prevention hotline number handy just in case.
Then there is What I Really Want for Christmas, the seventh studio album by Brian Wilson. Yes, that Brian Wilson. This isn’t really a bad record on its face, but something is off about it. Maybe a holiday that is supposed to be about family cannot really be understood by a guy who hates half of his family and ignored the other half.
And I have to take a moment to mention an album of Christmas music titled Duck the Halls, which is currently in the No. 2 spot on Billboard’s top country albums chart, down from the No. 1 position. By the cast of the show Duck Dynasty, it features the family’s “special brand of Southern, down-home sense of humor.” Chart-topping, because modern country fans are really discriminating. I could say anything about this record and you would believe me because, even though it was a number-one record, you haven’t heard it. So I will say the entire record is the family sitting around a table, loudly eating live baby ducks, and for some reason Alison Krauss is also there.
So if you are at another boring holiday party and the punch bowl is surrounded by too many people for you to sneak up and drop a turd into it, consider playing one of these records instead.
—Brett Winston of the French