A new Christmas album by Jerry Douglas is a no-brainer. His main instrument of choice, the squareneck Dobro, has a range of sound that is well-suited for holiday fare, and Douglas is the best Dobro player in the world. But as this new album shows, Douglas is also a musician who is willing to mix it up, to bring a diversity of sound to Christmas music.
Produced by Douglas and engineered by go-to board man Bill VornDick, Douglas sticks with his own talented band on most of these 12 tracks. The backing musicians include Todd Parks on bass, Guthrie Trapp on guitar and Luke Bulla on violin/fiddle. Former Jerry Douglas Band drummer (who still plays with the band on occasional) Doug Belote adds drums on four cuts and Kirby Shelstadt adds some percussion on a couple of tunes.
The album starts off with sleigh bells and a new acoustic music intro that morphs into a beautiful “The First Noel.” This is one of many cuts where Bulla expertly overdubs multiple violins tracks, harmonizing with himself on fiddle, that expands the sound wonderfully. “God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman” kicks in with a jazzy rhythm that once again eventually morphs into the main melody. While the musicianship is top-notch here, with everyone getting a chance at a solo, it is also fun. The drums of Doug Belote drive “Do You Hear What I hear,” which features an arrangement that hints at a Middle Eastern flare.
The most unusual and over-the-top song on here by far is “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town.” The arrangement is wack, combining an off-the-wall beat featuring marimba and tweaked electric piano that eventually gives way to some fine guitar work by Trapp. The song is sung by Douglas, and in the liner notes he is listed as providing “scary vocals.” I would describe his crazy vocals here as a combination of Louie Armstrong with a head cold, Tom Waits on a bender and the Grinch Who Stole Christmas pre-heart swell. Big fun.
As with any Jerry Douglas album, this project is also a tale of two grooves. There is a smooth and beautiful half to this album that would fit a mellow holiday evening. In fact, you could mix this album two different ways, depending on your mood. Maura O’Connell adds guest vocals to the Boo Hewerdine-penned “New Year’s Eve.” Other atmospheric tunes include the traditionals “All Through The Night” and “In The Bleak Of Winter,” along with “O Holy Night” and “Mary, Did You Know.” One of my favorite cuts on the album is Vince Guaraldi and Lee Mendelson’s “Christmas Time Is Here” from the original Charlie Brown Christmas TV show. It is the one tune from this album that could be played any time of year.
The album ends with a original Douglas composition called “Maui Christmas,” and a song called “Beautiful Star Of Bethlehem” that is done in an old school country music way that reflects Douglas’ West Virginia roots.