Who brings a banjo to a Christmas party?

Chris JonesLast week it was my birthday, which I spent flying from some place to some place else (I probably should have looked at the boarding pass). In any case, I’m here, but I’m celebrating my birthday late by taking the day off, eating cake and ice cream, and looking around to figure out exactly where I am (right now my money’s on Toledo, Ohio, but I could be wrong).

Therefore, I’m submitting a past column about Christmas parties:

Does your band get booked at Christmas parties? Does your band ever play parties of any kind? Do you even have a band?

If you answered yes to at least one of these questions, I have a little advice for you regarding playing private Christmas parties, advice based on years of having taken bookings like this. I took them because, you know, the holiday season just isn’t busy enough and should be just a little bit more scheduled.

Anyone who attends company Christmas parties knows there are usually stories that come out of these events, ones that are never good, but often entertaining. This is usually the stuff that people with real jobs talk about come January, and it helps to stave off the post-holiday midwinter blues: “Could you believe Livingston wearing those silver reindeer antlers, hitting on Maria’s niece, and then doing that terrible Nat King Cole imitation? Now I’m convinced more than ever that our boss is an idiot! Shhh! Here he comes now.”

As entertainers (i.e. “the help”) at these functions, you have a nice, safely removed view of the goings on. You can laugh inwardly (or outwardly, about two hours into it) at all that you observe, yet it doesn’t directly affect your life, because, chances are, you’ll never see any of these people again.

I have to admit that nothing terribly entertaining has ever happened at any of the Christmas parties I’ve played, aside from one opening prayer at an architecture firm’s annual holiday gathering in which they requested that God do something to make their work “more appreciated in the marketplace.” Right after that, we launched into Pike County Breakdown, which we introduced as North Pole Breakdown. 

The likelihood that one of these gigs will be artistically rewarding may be as remote as the North Pole itself, but it’s a fact that some of them pay pretty nicely, and who doesn’t need a little extra cash this time of year? And, they can even be fun if you handle them right.

Here, then, are eight important tips (one for each of Santa’s reindeer) to making your time as a Christmas party bluegrass entertainer more enjoyable and successful:

  • White Christmas works as a three-chord song. Irving Berlin had no idea that he was a bluegrass songwriter, but in the late ’70s, Larry Sparks proved that he was.
  • On the other hand, Mel Tormé’s The Christmas Song does not work as a three-chord song, although once I tried to sing it to the tune of Wreck of the Old 97, and it worked surprisingly well, until the bridge came around.
  • Speaking of chords, Sleigh Ride is the ultimate Christmas jam buster, and if someone requests it at the party, respectfully decline, unless the request is accompanied by charts (and a twenty). Offer Sledd Ridin’ as an alternative (it was named for Dale Sledd, and has nothing to do with Christmas, winter, or even sleds, but it’s a great tune, and they probably won’t care).
  • Don’t spend a lot of time introducing the band, because no one is paying attention (including the band members). In fact, keep talk to a bare minimum, unless someone in your band does a good imitation of Jim Carrey as The Grinch, or you’ve planned a dramatic reading of the Fezziweg dance scene from A Christmas Carol.
  • If your band is given free access to the Christmas cocktails, restrict the fiddle player’s eggnog consumption. It’s very hard on the intonation.
  • Be subtle about the consumption of the Christmas treats on your break. Shoveling cookies straight into your gig bag is considered rude, and should only be done in the event of a power outage.
  • No matter what the guests do, or wear, try to keep a straight face. If this becomes too challenging, try staring intently at the star on top of the tree (this is known as “The Magi Technique”)
  • If the spouse of the party’s organizer (the one in the elf costume) flirts with you, don’t flirt back. If the party’s organizer (the one paying you) flirts with you, try staring intently at the star on the top of the tree.
  • Start your show with Tex Logan’s Christmas Time’s a-Comin’” because it’s the right thing to do.

That may have been number nine. If so, consider it an extra one for Rudolph’s sake.

Next week, by popular demand (two people asked): Most boring bluegrass news stories of the year.