Back Home At Christmas Time from Epilogue

This remembrance from the recording of Epilogue: a Tribute to John Duffey comes from Akira Otsuka. Together with Ronnie Freeland, he spent 15 years recording this loving tribute to a bluegrass legend, who was also a dear friend to Akira. It is a remarkable album, on Smithsonian Folkways, with 17 tracks featuring recreations of songs Duffey had written and/or recorded during his long career in bluegrass.

After moving from Japan to Washington DC in early ’70s, I started listening to Gary Henderson’s Bluegrass show on WAMU from American University. Every year when December came around, two Christmas songs were on heavy rotation – one was Bill Monroe’s Christmas Time’s a Comin’, written by Tex Logan, and the other was Country Gentlemen’s Christmas Time Back Home, written by John Duffey and Anne Hill Streeter.

When my co-producer and recording engineer, Ronnie Freeland, and I started working on the Epilogue: a Tribute to John Duffey project, we did not have to argue whether we would record Christmas Time Back Home. Luckily the song was never covered by any other major artist that we were aware of.

As we started to record its basic tracks, we did not have any particular singer in mind. However, since Duffey originated Country Gentlemen and Seldom Scene, we eventually decided to have Gentlemen-related singers on the first verse and chorus, Scene members on the second verse, and current Scene lead singer Dudley Connell and a long time friend of the Scene, Jonathan Edwards, on the third verse.

So we settled on:

  • Randy Waller and Jimmy Gaudreau (first verse)
  • Eddie Adcock and Tom Gray will join on the chorus
  • John Starling and Lou Reid (second verse)
  • Mike Auldridge and Phil Rosenthal join on the chorus
  • Dudley Connell and Jonathan Edwards (third verse)

Then 29 people would join on the last chorus. While mixing this huge last chorus, Ronnie decided it sounds really good without instruments.

We even tried to do the same idea with banjo parts – intro by Eddie Adcock, first break by Bill Emerson, and last break by Ben Eldridge. Well, it didn’t work out too well and we had to scratch the idea because each player had such a characteristic sound, and it was distracting to switch within the song’s 3:14.

On the original recording there was a bell ringing throughout the song and it made the song Christmassy. However, we replaced it with chimes of Mike Auldridge’s resonator guitar – when you have the master of sweet chimes, why waste it, right?

So by the time we finished recording all the tracks, we had recorded more than 35 musicians – that’s an enormous amount of data since we always recorded 5-6 takes for each part. Ronnie of course mixed other easier songs first. By the time he passed away in July of 2014, Christmas Time Bach Home was the only one left to be mixed.

Ronnie had a great set of ears for music but he was using an old format, Tascam DTRS (Digital Tape Recording System), and nobody was using that system by the time I received the tapes. It took me a long time to discard tracks I didn’t need, digitize, and edit this vast amount of music. Then Rick Watson from Durham, NH did a wonderful job mixing and matching the sound to the rest of the album.

One thing I didn’t realize was that I changed the chord progression on this song until Tom Gray pointed it out. Oops. However, I like my chords better – I’m sorry if I cause confusion at a jam session 10 years from now….

Merry Christmas.
Akira Otsuka

P.S. A special thank you to Katy Daley and Rick Watson.

Epilogue is available wherever you stream or download music online, and to radio programmers at AirPlay Direct. Should you purchase it from a reseller that doesn’t include the brilliant 44-page liner notes, they can be downloaded from the Smithsonian Folkways site.