I read a shocking statistic the other day: 56 percent of Americans have started their Christmas shopping. Shocking because I hadn’t even ordered a Thanksgiving turkey yet, let alone given a single thought to Dec. 25.
Well, I still haven’t ordered the turkey, but I am all in on Christmas now that I’ve given repeated listens to Balsam Range’s six-song EP, It’s Christmas Time. It’s nearly enough to make me write off the bird and hang the mistletoe.
The project offers a mix of traditional holiday songs – you know the words – and a couple of more contemporary numbers, including Doc Watson’s Christmas Lullaby and the Ralph Stanley/Michael R. Kelley-penned I’m Going Home, It’s Christmas. And it’s a just-right blend of secular and spiritual – something for everybody who celebrates the holiday.
Everything you love about Balsam Range is here – beautiful harmonies, masterful picking and catchy arrangements. But there’s more: On all but one of the tracks, the band is joined by the Nashville Recording Orchestra, whose members add strings and – in one memorable spot – saxophone. It’s a happy-ending experiment, like adding an ingredient to mom’s tried-and-true cookie recipe and coming up with a crowd pleaser.
That saxophone, a spot-on solo by Sam Levine, comes in the middle of one my two favorites here, Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree. The song is a gift, built around the soulful singing of Buddy Melton. It might be awhile before I hear Brenda Lee’s voice in my head instead of Melton’s when this song comes to mind.
My other favorite, surprisingly, is the well-worn Jingle Bells, which just might be the Wagon Wheel of Christmas music, a song that everybody knows but isn’t exactly clamoring to hear. The song’s opening, played slower than usual, lulled me into not paying close attention. Then, BAM! An avalanche of notes from Marc Pruett’s banjo pulled me in and wouldn’t let me go. Even now, when I know it’s coming, the banjo-driven melody surprises me and brings a smile to my face. It’s a stellar arrangement that gives the old song fresh legs. The same can be said for Hark the Herald Angels Sing.
The Stanley-Kelley, with Darren Nicholson sing lead, is the only song without orchestra accompaniment. It’s bluegrass and mountain music through and through.
These songs will stay in rotation at Casa Morris throughout the holiday season, and maybe even a bit into the new year. It’s a gift that I’ll cherish for many holidays to come.