As Christmas approaches, it’s a good time to ponder what makes the perfect gift.
One thing is certain: As my expiration date draws ever closer, I have a much different definition than I did as a kid. Back then, it was all about toys, the flashier and noisier the better. Now, it’s more about function over form, who it’s from, whether it’s edible or comfortable. And, yes, maybe a toy or two.
By that definition, Becky Buller’s Christmas CD, The Perfect Gift, pretty much lives up to its name. The blend of sacred and secular, old and new, is just right. It fits, it’s comfortable, and while it isn’t edible, it is yummy. Plus, it’s from some of the best in the business, in terms of artists, the producer (Stephen Mougin) and label (Dark Shadow Recording). And there are toys!
As expected from the much-awarded Buller, this project is a sublime blend of vocals and killer instrumentation. Is there anything that says Christmas better than the a cappella awesomeness of the Fairfield Four joining Buller on Mary Rocked Her Baby? On most projects, perhaps not. The Buller-Lisa Aschmann co-write would be the biggest and best gift on many CDs, but here it’s one of several.
Consider the song Tell Me The Story of Jesus, credited to Fanny Crosby and now in the public domain. In my head, this song has been forever accompanied by a church organ and full harmonies. But from this season forward, I will always hear it the way it is presented here: As a spectacular duet with Buller and Vince Gill, with sweet and simple accompaniment by Buller on guitar and Ricky Skaggs on mandolin.
One or both of these are likely to be on the final IBMA ballot for Gospel Recording of the Year or Collaborative Recording of the Year late in the summer.
If you’re young, or young at heart, you might be drawn to another group of songs, starting with the opening number, a grassed-up version of Wham’s pop sensation, Last Christmas. Buller’s nine-year-old daughter Romy fell in love with the George Michael-written classic, so mom brought it to the studio. The track features an all-star cast that pops up now and again on the record: Barry Bales on bass, Ron Block on banjo, Sierra Hull on mandolin, Dan Tyminski on guitar, and Todd Livingston on resophonic guitar. Mougin and Hull add harmony vocals.
Others that can rekindle Christmas memories of years gone by are Merry Macaroni Art and Our Gingerbread House, both written by Buller and Aschmann. The first, with electric guitar and percussion, will earn a scowl from bluegrass purists. But I’ll bet even the most resistant will smile at the memories of making a mess and creating a masterpiece at the same time. The second is a 3/4 time classic in the making.
Some listeners will also be drawn to A Marshmallow World, a revisitation of The Rat Pack’s holiday favorite. Buller’s version includes vocals from Rhonda Vincent. Call me Grinch, but this one doesn’t do it for me. It’s the talking part late in the song. I’ve never been a fan of those. But, as always, your mileage may vary.
Traditionalists, actually anyone who ever stepped foot in a church during the season, will sing along with I Heard The Bells on Christmas Day and O Come, O Come Emmanuel. Buller, with harmony by Tim O’Brien, gives Emmanuel an old-time feel. Bells, with Civil War-era lyrics by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, follows the arrangement popularized decades ago by Harry Belafonte.
All in all, The Perfect Gift lives up to its billing. You’ll sink deep into memories of Christmases past, laugh, smile, and be filled with good cheer. The Perfect Gift is the perfect gift for our complicated world.
You can check out all the Christmas bluegrass we have covered at Bluegrass Today by following this link.