Every year, National Media Services, a studio and disc replication company in northern Virginia, chooses one of its clients to record a Christmas album in-house. It’s a pretty sweet deal, with the opportunity for media attention on both sides of the recording booth. For the past several years, NMS has chosen a bluegrass group for this seasonal affair – Trinity River Band and Bud’s Collective, to name a few – and 2016’s band was none other than Circa Blue. The album that resulted is Bells of Home, a ten-track collection mixing new songs from popular bluegrass songwriters with a few holiday classics.
The album opens with Snowflake or Two, a strong contemporary number penned by Cory Wharton. The song begins on a cheerful note, with images of snowy hills and carolers, but listeners quickly find out the singer is longing for the return of a loved one. Bass player Ashley Stewart provides warm lead vocals with just a hint of heartache. Spirit of Christmas, from Paula Breedlove and Brink Brinkman, takes a more positive look at the holiday season, reminding listeners to “let the spirit of Christmas live inside you every day,” even when the decorations have long been put away. Its gentle, rolling melody and uplifting message make it an enjoyable listen.
Songwriter Dawn Kenney has a strong presence on this album, to the point that the album is actually subtitled A Circa Blue Christmas with Dawn Kenney. She co-wrote four songs, including the title track (which was also the lead single). Bells of Home, which was co-written by Kenney and David Morris, is a thoughtful, well-written number that takes listeners to a World War II battlefield. While the soldier narrating the song is cold and lonely “at war somewhere in Belgium,” he is dreaming of the sights and sounds of Christmas at home. Guitarist Steve Harris offers contemplative, melancholy vocals, setting the mood of the song nicely. Kenney and Morris also wrote Christmas in the Keys, a lighthearted mid-tempo piece about trading in a traditional Christmas for a love-nest at the beach. Malia Furtado provides a fun fiddle line, accented nicely by Matt Hickman’s bouncy banjo.
Furtado’s fiddling is also a highlight of the swingy Candy Cane Sweetheart, sung by Kenney with a smooth 1940s flair. It’s a bright, charming love song, with Kenney begging Santa for the one thing she truly wants. Rounding out the four tracks from Kenney is album closer Happy Birthday Jesus, a collaboration with Harris and Furtado. It’s a neat, quick little a capella Gospel number (think Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver), complete with bass vocals and party sounds in the background.
Other standout tracks include In the Bleak Mid-Winter, a traditional English carol set to a lilting melody that takes listeners through the biblical Christmas story. Kenney, backed by soft guitar and fiddle, takes the lead again with restrained yet commanding vocals. Another is We Three Kings, given a pulsing, urgent rhythm guided by Hickman’s banjo. Mandolin player Ryan Mullins shows a knack for vocal phrasing in his lead performance here.
Many bluegrass Christmas albums lean on old favorites and grassed up carols full of instrumental acrobatics. While I’m as big a fan of Christmas Time’s A Comin’ as anyone, it’s really nice to find a Christmas album that relies so heavily on new material – and good material, at that. Circa Blue has a very enjoyable collection with Bells of Home, with plenty of well-written songs, strong lead vocals throughout, and solid musicianship. There’s still time to grab a copy before Christmas – fans of contemporary bluegrass should check it out.