Very Merry Christmas – Williamson Branch

As the snow flies outside my studio window, and the pressures of unfinished tasks threaten to bring out the grinchiest of my Grinch-like qualities, I’m sitting here wearing a huge who-cares smile. Reality can wait until next week, maybe even next year. Today it’s all about Joy to The World and other seasonal sentiments included on Very Merry Christmas, the latest CD from Williamson Branch.

I’ve been fortunate to watch this family band develop for nearly a decade. There’s nothing like family harmonies, and there’s nothing like a well chosen mix of sacred and secular Christmas music to showcase them. All five of the Williamsons take turns singing lead on 13 cuts on the Pinecastle project (there’s also one cool instrumental). I could listen to these voices all day. In fact, I’ve been doing just that for several days in a row.

There are so many wonderful moments here that I can’t list them all. Like a kid on Christmas morning, I appreciate all the gifts, but I keep coming back to a handful. In this case, most of my favorites are standards that I hear a lot this time of year, but the vocal and instrumental arrangements presented by the band and producer John Bowman make them sound fresh and delightful. 

Must-hear tracks include God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, on which Melody Williamson Keyes delivers the lead vocal; Joy to the World, with Kadence Williamson singing out front; Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree, with Jimmy Fortune and Caroline Williamson trading the lead; and Silver Bells, with mom and dad, Debbie and Kevin Williamson, handling lead and harmonies, respectively.

Even the well-worn Christmas Time’s A Comin’ is a joy, with Melody’s lead vocal giving way to Kadence on White Christmas. The songs blend together seamlessly.

But, as regular readers haven probably figured out by now, I’m a sucker for original songs, and there are a handful here. Topping my very subjective list are Coal in My Stocking and Grandpa’s Reindeer Revenge.

Kevin wrote the first one and Caroline delivers a heartbreaking vocal about a family facing a bleak holiday because dad lost his job in the mines. I first heard the song during IBMA’s Songwriter Showcase a few years back, and it’s even better here than I remember. The second is a humorous update to a song you either love or hate, Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer. The update, credited to Randy Brooks (who wrote the original), Kevin and Kadence, finds grandpa in jail and Rudolph’s antlers hanging on the wall. It may be the only song, bluegrass or otherwise, Christmas or otherwise, that includes a line about “field dressing” a deer! It’s all in fun, and, as the liner notes point out, “No reindeer were harmed in the making of this album.”

The instrumentation is powerful, too. Kevin is a strong rhythm guitarist, though for my money, the picking from this band has always been about Melody’s tasteful fiddling and Kadence’s driving bass lines. Some fine banjo playing comes from Anthony Howell, who left the band after the album was tracked. 

Finally, I want to give a little shoutout to Chris Brown. His drumming on some of these tunes is tasteful and restrained. Only the scroogiest Scrooge would dare to object.

All in all, Very Merry Christmas is very, very good. If you’re anything like me, you’ll be singing along, dancing in your chair a bit, and maybe even tapping along with the percussion.

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About the Author

David Morris

David Morris, an award-winning songwriter and journalist, has written for Bluegrass Today since its inception. He joined its predecessor, The Bluegrass Blog, in 2010. His 40-year career in journalism included more than 13 years with The Associated Press, a stint as chief White House correspondent for Bloomberg News, and several top editing jobs in Washington, D.C. He is a life member of IBMA and the DC Bluegrass Union. He and co-writers won the bluegrass category in the Chris Austin Songwriting Contest at MerleFest in 2015.