The crunch of snow under my boots high in the Sangre de Cristos mountains of northern New Mexico, the clear blue sky through the piney wood hills of north Florida, the wild winds and cold rain of the east and west coasts of Ireland, the chill cold fronts of New England, the leaves swirling along the rainy streets of Nashville, and the ever changing weather of central Texas in December: these have all been part of my holiday landscape at one time another. Here is some of the music which has traveled with me on those journeys.
Kathy Mattea has two holiday albums, Good News and Joy for Christmas Day. You’ll not be finding dancing snowmen, wassailing, or reindeer run amok here. Mattea, however, shows that songs of reverence and faith are every bit as engaging, enduring, and beautiful, and sometimes as funny, too, as any secular Christmas work. Both albums include traditional and contemporary songs; Good News is perhaps a bit quieter, while Joy has, on occasion, more instruments and percussive rhythms. On News, in Mary Did You Know? the singer considers the mother’s thoughts of future and past looking at her just born son, questions sure to move anyone who has held a small child, much anyone who has raised one. Good News, the title track, is a well imagined bit of harmony that resonates all the more clearly for its simplicity. On Joy, Mattea and her band have good fun with Marc Cohn’s Baby King and show an understanding of understated grace with their take on Bob Franke’s Straw Against the Chill.
Western skies and border memories infuse Tish Hinojosa’s From Texas for a Christmas Night. It’s a mix of songs from Memorabilia Navidena, a collection she did some years back, with recently recorded music, including the graceful title track and a song honoring Chanukah. There’s her reimagining of the Christ child as a young girl in the barrio in Building Number 9, and a pair of songs often requested at the singer’s holiday concerts, Arbolito. Those recount, in English and Spanish, a quick trip through her yearly chats with her Christmas tree. Whether you know Spanish or not, you’ll be singing along with the joy filled Milagro, and be inspired by the the quiet journey of the holy family seeking a place for the night in A la Nanita Nana, a traditional song often sung in Hispanic communities as that journey is re enacted.
Though it’s from a completely different part of the Mexican American song universe, The Best of Tejano Country Christmas is also well worth your musical time, even though you’ll likely find it in the bargain bin. It’s Freddy Fender, Joel Nava, La Differenzia and others on songs in English and Spanish including Noche de Paz, Frosty el Snowman, and Christmas Time in Texas.
Two very different yet related sounds of Christmas in the southwestern US come from R.Carlos Nakai and William Eaton, who collaborate on Native flute and guitar to offer traditional holiday music which yet suggests western skies in Winter Dreams and from from guitarist Ottmar Liebert. On Christmas + Santa Fe he interweaves familiar holiday music with original riffs and compositions those sounds, and living in Santa Fe, suggest to him. Al Petteway and Amy White suggest the forests of their North Carolina base with the mostly instrumental, mostly guitar and keyboard Winter Tidings. With song and story, Emmylou Harris evokes that same part of the world on Light of the Stable.
Lively jigs and reels, a Victorian Christmas card of a story set to music, a twelfth century Irish carol and a familiar American one, and a song about a cat: all those are on Matt and Shannon Heaton’s Fine Winter’s Night. It’s an inviting and engaging collection from the Boston area couple, who mix Celtic and American influences with grace and care. You’ll learn a bit about the making of this recording in an upcoming edition of Voices.
Christine Albert and Chris Gage have good fun with Mr. & Mrs. Santa Claus as well as the classic Baby It’s Cold Outside. River, Christmas Every Day, title track One More Christmas, and in a nod to Albert’s French Swiss background, the carol Un flambeau Jeannette, Isabella, are other fine songs on the disc. It’s really engaging to hear this pair work, together and separately. Kelly Willis and Bruce Robison offer a friendly and inviting, and rather short, recording called Happy Holidays, which finds Willis in a torchy mood on Santa Baby and a thoughtful one on In the Bleak Midwinter, while Robison handles opposite ends of the Christmas music spectrum equally well on Please, Daddy, Don’t Get Drunk This Christmas, and Christmas in Newport City.
Canadian artists Eileen McGann, Cathy Smith, and David K put their popular holiday show on record a few years back. The three, who each have solo careers, call themselves Trilogy at Christmas time, for the album called 2000 Years of Christmas. Their voices, harmonies, and senses of humor compliment each other well. The music they offer runs from O Magnum Mysterium to Mr. Grinch, from Christmas in the Trenches to The Huron Carol, to originals including the thoughtful look at another’s holiday. Turn it Around, and the funny turning a folk song to a new purpose song Snow Shanty.
Narada Best of Celtic Christmas is a double CD. One disc, called The Night Before, is all music from the Ireland based group Dordan, which does indeed suggest the anticipation, preparation, and mix of hushed reverence and excitement Christmas eve brings. The other disc is a range of music from a range of artists, which suggests how a Celtic Christmas really sounds. Among those offering their take on holiday gems are Bonnie Rideout, Altan, The Boys of the Lough, Cathie Ryan, Kathy Mattea, and Natalie MacMaster with Alison Krauss. Winter’s Eve is another collaboration of several artists which includes John R. Burr’s reflective piano on Snow at Waterloo, Pierce Pettis’ insightful look at ChristÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s mother on Miriam, and Alison Brown’s refreshing take on the carol We Three Kings led by her banjo.
Kerry Dexter is a former Music Correspondent at Gather. Her credits include VH1, CMT, Wandering Educators, National Geographic Traveler, The Encyclopedia of Ireland and the Americas, and The MusicHound Guides. She also writes about the arts and creative practice at Music Road.