Raise a Glass of Holiday Cheer or Bah Humbug?: “The Christmas Song”

Welcome to a brand new Christmas feature of Country Perspective! Now in the past long-time readers may remember me passing on reviewing Christmas songs because well I didn’t really know the best way to approach them and I also felt the need to cover what I felt like everybody else wanted me to cover instead of covering what I want. But obviously things change, as I just did my very first Christmas review.

Now my new feature is quite simple: I’m going to take a look at and categorize the different versions of a Christmas song into one of two categories. The good category is Raise a Glass of Holiday Cheer, whether that be egg nog, hot chocolate, or whatever other holiday concoction you prefer (just be responsible of course). The bad category is Bah Humbug, named after the famous retort of Ebenezer Scrooge (the Disney version of it is the best, don’t @ me). The main point of this feature is to have some holiday fun! And maybe you’ll find a new version of a holiday classic to stick in your own playlist. Also please throw your own recommendations in the comments!

The first song I’m going to take a look at is “The Christmas Song,” which you probably remember as the song that involves chestnuts roasting on an open fire. Well that’s the line I remember the most. The song was written in 1945 by Robert Wells and Mel Tommé (the latter actually admitted he doesn’t even like the song). But here’s a fun fact: The song was actually written on a hot summer day! Isn’t that crazy? There’s a little bit more to the story too, so I encourage to click the link above to read it. The song was originally recorded by The Nat King Cole Trio in 1946 and King went on to record several versions of the song in his career, as it became one of his biggest hits. It’s also the most performed Christmas song according to BMI, which is something I did not know either.

Raise a Glass of Holiday Cheer

  • Nat King Cole

The original and gold standard of course must be at the top of the good list!

Or as most of you probably remember it as: A Charlie Brown Christmas music. You really can’t get much classier and respectful when it comes to Christmas music than what you get from Vince Guaraldi Trio. Their entire Christmas discography is great, as even listeners who normally don’t check out jazz music can find enjoyment and Yuletide relaxation from it.

I’m hit and miss on the Jackson family when it comes to their Christmas album, but this is one of the songs I enjoy on it. It respects the classiness of the original version, while still making it feel like the era they recorded it in (1970) and making it their own too.

One day I’m going to write a piece (or pieces?) on how much I enjoy and respect Motown artists. Phil Spector and his artists really knew how to craft melodies and smart, catchy hooks. And The Temptations version of this song is no different, as it’s got a decidedly R&B feeling that makes it feel like a more “adult” version because grownups need Christmas music too.

Alan Jackson’s Let It Be Christmas album is one of my all-time favorite Christmas albums and I encourage anyone who hasn’t listened to it to do so. Jackson’s deep baritone and gentlemanly nature just makes him perfect to record really any Christmas song. It’s safe to assume you will always see him on the good side of this feature.

Bah Humbug!

  • Thomas Rhett

Thomas Rhett’s version of this classic is too smooth and overproduced. I’m so shocked! Not really of course, as it follows a pattern of the majority of his music. This is like the last version I want to hear of this song. As I said in my Bowen review, it’s amazing how modern artists can screw up holiday songs.

Okay, so you might be surprised to see Crosby show up here instead of above. After all he’s performed so many great renditions of Christmas songs and most of the time he will end up on the good list. But this one of his misses in my mind: this is too slow, boring and doesn’t feel like Christmas. Crosby is practically yawning his way through the song. It’s the music equivalent of paint drying. While most older versions of Christmas songs are better, this is an exception to the rule.

When I don’t enjoy an Aguilera song, it’s because she’s overdoing it and going too over-the-top with her lyrics. And that is the case here, as it starts off well enough. But she just can’t help herself by the end of the song.

Just like Bing Crosby, I usually enjoy a lot of Fitzgerald’s versions of Christmas songs. But this song makes a big mistake with it’s thin, jingly production. It feels like a cabaret, bar room lounge rendition of the song. And that’s a shame because Ella Fitzgerald can belt it, so I don’t understand why you would have her record this type of version of the song.

I take it back: Thomas Rhett’s version of “The Christmas Song” isn’t the worst. She & Him’s version is the worst. Also I finally get my opportunity to put this (digital) pen to paper: She & Him are absolutely awful. They’re one of the most annoying acts in music. From the general vibe they give off in their music to their album covers, they come off as snobby, pretentious and overwrought. The only thing they’re missing is fedoras. I openly gag when I hear their music. Just like Alan Jackson being a lock for the Holiday Cheer list, She & Him are a lock for Bah Humbug.

Album Review — Wade Bowen’s ‘Twelve Twenty-Five’

Every year modern artists will release their interpretations of classic Christmas songs, whether via singles or even an entire album. And maybe they’ll even sprinkle in a few originals if you’re lucky. But the problem is most of them don’t stand out in any way. You’ll listen to it once, say “that’s neat” and then go right back to listening to the same old songs you always listen to around the holidays. Occasionally though someone will actually release something worthy of earning a spot in your Christmas songs rotation and this year that’s Wade Bowen’s new Christmas album Twelve Twenty-Five. I had a great feeling about the Texas country artist’s first Christmas album when it was announced, and it went beyond even my own expectations.

Bowen opens with his rendition of “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” and he knocks his performance out of the park. It’s infectious, fun and gets the Christmas energy on this album kicked off perfectly. And I’m happy the production doesn’t go over the top like it usually does when other artists cover this song. “O Holy Night” is next and this is admittedly one of my favorite religious Christmas songs. That’s because I feel it truly captures the joy and meaning of Christmas through the Christian lens and Bowen’s performance truly does justice to it, which isn’t surprise considering he released a great gospel album.

“Santa Claus is Coming to Town” is next and I can tell that Bruce Springsteen’s version of the song influences Bowen’s own version. It’s got a more rocking feeling rather than the classical approach many take and even banters in the song like Springsteen. But Bowen pulls it off so much better than Bruce because he doesn’t over sing it (stay tuned for further elaboration on why I hate the Boss’s take on the song), and the guitars and pianos don’t blast the listener. Less can be more. “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” showcases why I enjoy Bowen in more stripped-down songs. His voice just fits these piano ballads and the song also properly captures the feeling I look for in the covering of this song: mostly somber, but with bits of optimism and hope.

Bowen’s son Brock joins him on “Holly Jolly Christmas” and I must admit I usually hate children singing. But I actually enjoy this performance because it’s endearing, and Bowen goes full dad in the bridge of the song. It’s hilarious while also avoiding being corny and feeling forced. It feels real and as the listener I can appreciate and enjoy this. When I think of “Please Come Home for Christmas” the first version I think of is The Eagles’ version, as I believe it to be the best. And while I don’t think Bowen’s version tops it, it’s still pretty damn good, as he captures the yearning and wanting needed in his vocal performance.

Bowen is joined by another one of his sons, Bruce, on the Irving Berlin classic “White Christmas.” This performance is much different than the other one, as both take this song more seriously and Bruce sounds pretty good. Their harmonies sound great too. You can tell the apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree, as he may one day follow his father’s footsteps. It’s a heartfelt and enjoyable performance from the father and son duo.

I have to say I was surprised to see Wade Bowen cover the Mariah Carey classic “What I Want for Christmas is You,” as the song’s high popularity and sterling reputation amongst critics and listeners alike makes it a challenging song for other artists to tackle. Not to mention it requires some serious pipes to pull off. But he does a fantastic job! It’s a different take that I think is worthy of being in anybody’s Christmas playlist. Again, if you’re like me and you get sick of Christmas songs going a little too far with production at times these more minimally produced Christmas songs are a fresh change of pace. If you don’t want to spend time with this whole album, this is one of a few songs that should absolutely be heard.

“Til The Season Comes Round Again” is great to hear covered, as this song is a classic that often gets overlooked. It’s a warm blanket next to the fire type song that Bowen along with the soulful feature of Sean McConnell cover really well. The addition of McConnell harmonizing with Bowen is really the cherry on top to make it a memorable performance. Dolly Parton’s “Once Upon a Christmas” is covered next and I will never complain about a Dolly song showing up. While this is one of the my less favorite takes on the album (it has the unenviable task of living up to Dolly and Kenny Rogers), it’s still solid and I like the Texas influences that are incorporated into the song.

The great Cody Canada joins Bowen for a rendition of Merle Haggard’s brilliant “If We Make It Through December.” I remember growing up I found this song to be kind of depressing and it is, but it’s also important that this unpleasant and for some people, really real look at the other side of Christmas be presented. It shows that Christmas doesn’t always go like it does in the movies and that reality and what you want don’t always align. In other words, why we love country music: it’s real.

Bowen goes to the other end of the spectrum with his cover of Wham!’s “Last Christmas.” And for some this might be sacrilegious to say, but I find Bowen’s cover to be better than the original by George Michael. The reason is 1) I hate the excessive synth on the original and 2) Bowen’s more stripped-down version allows the great lyrics to shine. Both these points play into each other, as the synths and overall cheesy feeling of the original really takes away from the quality of the lyrics that tell the complicated story of love lost around the holidays. This was easily an immediate standout on this album. Appropriate, the album closes with “Silent Night.” It’s just a natural closing song for a Christmas album and Bowen delivers a stirring and soulful rendition of this Christmas staple.

Twelve Twenty-Five is a modern Christmas album done right and I applaud Wade Bowen for accomplishing something that surprisingly so many modern artists screw up. Bowen takes classic songs and instead of trying to add some “twist” to make it stand out, instead just delivers them through his own voice with a country flavor while respecting the original takes on them. And don’t dismiss this as just a great country Christmas album. This is a great Christmas album against any genre.

Grade: 9 candy canes out of 10

Album Review – Rob Baird’s ‘Wrong Side of the River’

Rob Baird Wrong Side of the River

One of the things I pride myself on is keeping up with all of the best artists in country and Americana. I do my absolute best to review and cover all of the best and yet there’s always some artists that fall through the cracks. There was one artist in particular I kept hearing about from readers and around the independent country community. I’ve been wanting to cover him for a while and with the slow down in releases this month I finally get to. That artist is Rob Baird. Hailing from Memphis, Tennessee, he started out in 2010 with Carnival Recording Company founded by Frank Liddell in Nashville. After releasing two albums under this label, he’s now on his own. Baird released his third studio album earlier this year titled Wrong Side of the River. For this album he got outside of the Nashville bubble and headed west to Austin, Texas for inspiration. And I have to say the Red Dirt influence shines bright on this album.

You can really hear the Texas influence from the start on “Ain’t Nobody Got a Hold on Me.” A prominent guitar gives the song a real catchy melody throughout and really allows Baird’s voice to shine. It’s a subtly smooth song that draws the listener right in. The steel guitar-laden “Mercy Me” sees Baird tackling heartbreak. He questions why he runs and the things he’s done in his life, holding him back from finding love. And I did mention there’s a lot of steel guitar? If you love steel guitar, this song has plenty. “Pocket Change” has a more hard rock influence about it. It’s another heartbreak song and features some of the best instrumentation on the album. The roaring electric guitars and the lingering organ in the background really make for some fun music. In other words, it fits perfectly in the Red Dirt scene.

The quieter, subdued “Run of Good Luck” shows a softer side to Baird’s voice. The song is about a man and woman knowing it’s time for them to leave their town of Abilene and “roll the dice” in their lives. They know what they’re doing is a risk, but at the same time they don’t have much to lose either. This is definitely one of the standouts of Wrong Side of the River, as Baird’s vocals and the instrumentation blend together perfectly. The album’s title track begins with some eerie guitar play, giving the song an almost psychedelic feel. It’s one of the most intriguing openers to a song I’ve heard this year. The whole song really features some stellar instrumentation. If there’s one thing this album just nails, it’s this aspect.

The outro for “Wrong Side of the River” bleeds right into “Oklahoma.” Baird sings of the traveling musician being on the road and feeling lonely without the woman he loves in his life all the time. He wishes she was with him and that they weren’t apart all the time. It’s a pretty solid track. Baird draws upon his experiences as a rancher out west on “Horses.” The song is about how he watches the horses live and makes him ponder his own life. It’s one of those reflective songs that pulls you in and reminds you that you need slow down in this fast-paced life. The song is a very relaxing listen. “Mississippi Moon” is a song title that upon first listen might make you think of bro country, but I assure there’s no bro country here. At the same time this heartbreak song doesn’t stand out that well lyrically compared to the other heartbreak songs on this album.

Baird sings of his own mortality on “When I Go.” The somber, yet definitive reflection in his voice as he thinks of his mistakes and what lies ahead for him really resonates with you. It’s one of the lyrical high points on this album for sure, as the emotion of it really makes it stand out. While Baird does a great job with the faster paced, more fun songs, it’s these softer songs where you can really feel his talent shine the brightest. Wrong Side of the River ends with “Cowboy Cliché.” Baird is preparing himself for the impending breakup coming his way and wants it come so he can start living the clichéd cowboy lifestyle. He knows he will drift around and live with the skeletons that haunt him in his closet. It’s yet another solid heartbreak tune on an album full of them.

Overall Wrong Side of the River is a pretty good album with some impressive instrumentation. This is the absolute best part of the album, as I really don’t have any complaints in this regards. It’s catchy, it’s fun, it sets the tone perfectly on the sadder songs and it’s very country. Rob Baird’s voice really impresses me on this album too. It’s very smooth and emotive. The comparison I instantly thought of was Wade Bowen, which I know is high praise, but Baird is most certainly worthy. If I were Baird I would stick around Austin because I think he would fit in well next to the likes of Bowen and other Red Dirt artists. The only thing this album needed that it lacked was a few more “wow” moments. Other than that I think it’s a great album and I’m excited to hear what Baird has in-store next. He certainly shows a ton of potential with Wrong Side of the River.

Grade: 9/10

Album Review – Sean McConnell’s Self-Titled Album

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It’s not too often that an artist with over 15 years of releasing music comes out with a self-titled album after nine albums and EPs, but that’s exactly what Sean McConnell has done. This new album is appropriately self-titled because the songs are about Sean McConnell. “It’s a real storyteller record, and it’s pretty autobiographical. I’m learning how to be more honest and understated in my writing, and I wanted to match that sonically and vocally. When I look at this collection of songs, I see a lot of nostalgia, and looking back on sacred moments,he says.  The ten songs touch on a variety of personal aspects in life from having kids, to reflecting back on the early days of marriage.

Sean McConnell begins with the pop/rock anthem “Holy Days.” McConnell’s never really been straightforward country, but his music and style fits with Americana nicely. “Holy Days” recalls the times of the band starting to gain some traction and meeting a woman along the way who steals your heart, if only for a short while. The catchy chorus, passionate vocals, and pounding drums set the mood for an upbeat, fun-loving album. On “Ghost Town,” McConnell revisits his old hometown and reflects back on the good times he and his friends had while growing up. As he walks around, he realizes this place isn’t the same place he once knew because the people are strangers and places have changed.

“Bottom of the Sea” is a re-release from McConnell’s recent B-sides EP. Instead of treading water and taking the easy road, McConnell sings “I’m going down to the bottom of the sea until I’ve found the deepest part of me. And if I drown, at least I know that I died free.” There’s a quiet banjo in the song mix, but this song falls under the same sort upbeat, pop/rock umbrella which grounds this whole album. “Beautiful Rose” has more country instrumentation with the mandolin and simple acoustic guitars. The song deals with how life’s unexpected turn of events can be a blessing, even if it’s something that you never planned. The second verse suggests that the song could be influenced by the birth of child, which makes the song’s hook much more impactful. “Hey Mary” is a quick number about falling in love with a girl. With a sense of maturity, McConnell sings about letting her stay the night in his room while he camps out on the floor, and makes her breakfast after she wakes up.

The theme of love continues with “Best We’ve Ever Been.” The song celebrates the anniversary of a husband and wife, who look back through old photographs of their time together thus far, and go out to relive their youthful spirit for a night. The song’s production fits with the happy, celebratory nature of the lyrics. The highlight of the album is the autobiographical “Queen of Saint Mary’s Choir.” The song touches on Sean McConnell’s musical past: parents who sang and played guitar, and a journey from Atlanta to Nashville chasing musical dreams. He sings of the parts of his parents he sees in himself to begin the catchy chorus, and keeps himself grounded in reality while pursuing his music.

Sean McConnell has never shied away from religious themes in his music, and “Running Under Water” is no different. He compares trying to overcome his struggles, externally and internally, with running under water – the feeling of drowning while working hard and going nowhere fast. “One Acre of Land” is a tender love song about wanting to build a beautiful life with the one you love, even if everything isn’t perfect. He may not make a lot of money or do physical labor well, but those qualities shouldn’t matter when you both love each other, have the essentials. The acoustic production allows the personal plea of the lyrics to breathe and come up front. Sean McConnell ends the album with “Babylon,” using the symbol of the ancient city as a metaphor for a crumbling relationship. The song builds as it progresses from the verses through the chorus and bridge, and hits the emotional peak with the last couple of lines. “Do you ever stop and think about me? Tell me how you even breathe without me? I don’t know how to go on without you.” It’s a great end to the album and shows off McConnell’s strength as a writer.

Sean McConnell’s self-titled album is excellent. He does a great job with composing catchy songs without sacrificing quality in the lyrics; he tells compelling stories and delivers them in an equally compelling way. This is the kind of musical quality you expect from a seasoned artist like McConnell. At ten songs, the album leaves you yearning for just a bit more, but the plus side of the short track list means one is hard pressed to find filler songs on the album. For years, McConnell has been a background player in music, writing songs for others like Wade Bowen, Randy Rogers Band, or David Nail. With that said, this is the kind of album that could capture a larger audience, and bring McConnell’s name into bigger, and well-deserved spotlight.

Grade: 9/10

The Hodgepodge: The Decline of Country Festivals

With the rise of bro-country from virtually every male artist in country music came the rise of country festivals across the nation to capitalize on the hot trend. The goal was to put Florida Georgia Line or Luke Bryan on stage in a field surrounded by beer tents where hundreds of college students and recent graduates will congregate and get drunk while crappy, corporate country music blasted through the speakers encouraging the concert goers to continue getting drunk. These country festivals are basically a glorified frat party.

As quickly as the bro-country trend sky rocketed, it’s free-falling at the same rate. This year, over 20 country music festivals have cancelled shows due to a lack of interest and ticket sales. The Bayou Country Superfest saw a drop in ticket sales for the block of shows last weekend. The most likely case for these plummeting attendance numbers could be due to the fact that there’s simply way too many shows and festivals out there.

“Several shows have been downsized, canceled or just decided to skip this year. We may have reached the saturation point given the current talent pool,” – Pollstar’s editor-in-chief, Gary Bongiovanni

“There is an oversaturation in the market. … You’ve got a festival on every corner,”– Nash FM and Classic Hits 103.3 DJ Scott Innes

Another theory Innes states for the sudden evaporation of the festivals is that artists aren’t making money. “The only one that’s making money is the artist. … It’s a cross-your-fingers deal (for promoters to turn a profit).” Innes points out that top acts at these festivals could walk away with upwards of $1 million per show. A majority of these festivals have tickets that are purchased as an all day pass or gate admission for the whole day. So a $40 admission fee grants you access to see every show scheduled that day, and many festivals will have a bundle discount option for multiple days. That’s unlike a show at an arena or stadium where $60 buys your nosebleed seat for an opener or two plus the headliner.

So why are artists demanding so much money? Because concerts and live shows are what bring the majority of profit. We’ve detailed several times how streaming’s payouts are ridiculously low for artists and songwriters. However, as streaming continues to grow and modern radio continues to decline, artists and labels need to find other ways to bring in money. The concert and tour therefore become the focal point for the artist or band. That’s why albums are built with a high number of ready-made singles. Producers and labels want an album with five or six singles to sustain a long tour. They want more money for these shows because it’s essentially all they have for profit. But at festivals with multiple days and headliners, no one gets paid if fans aren’t there to buy drinks and merchandise.

One reason why I think attendance numbers are lower this year is due to the fact that bro-country is virtually dead. Many of the biggest names in bro-country have moved on with songs about heartbreak or spiritual inspired love song. Florida Georgia Line has “H.O.L.Y.”, Blake Shelton has “She’s Got a Way With Words”, Luke Bryan has “Huntin’ Fishin’….” which reverts back to his country checklist lifestyle and not a bro party. The point is, for many of these artists, the party has ended for now.

How many fans of bro-country were fans of the actual artist vs. simply fans of the trend and songs? I can’t tell you how many of my own friends despised country music until bro-country took off, then they became big fans of Luke Bryan and Florida Georgia Line. Boston is a city that traditionally didn’t value country music, but once bro-country became popular, Boston became a hot spot for mainstream country concerts. I’d be willing to bet that a good chunk of bro-country fans were only fans of bro-country, and don’t care for “Confession” or “H.O.L.Y.”

How will the Adult Contemporary influence on so many recent mainstream releases bring a big change to concert culture? The songs don’t ignite the party like bro-country did. And probably a better question for the concert goer, is how will the lack of extra profit from the festivals effect ticket prices for normal tour shows? Several artists like Eric Church and Kip Moore have tried to fight off scalpers, so that their fans wanting to attend shows are ripped off with ticket prices. There are singers out there who understand that for some fans, a concert ticket may be a tall order for some of the fans in attendance. This all ties back to streaming’s payouts. If streaming services can’t pay artists, songwriters, et. al. in a fair amount as the number of users grow, artists and managers will make money other ways, at the cost of the fans who only want to see their favorite band live in concert.

Upcoming/Recent Country and Americana Releases

  • Due out tomorrow:
    • Maren Morris’ debut album Hero.
    • Robert Ellis’ self titled album.
    • Jackson Taylor’s Which Way Is Up.
    • Wade Bowen & Randy Rogers’ live acoustic album Watch This.
  • On June 10th, Brandy Clark will release her second album, Big Day in a Small Town.
  • Frankie Ballard will release his newest album, El Rio, on June 10th.
  • Luke Bell will release his self titled album on June 17th.
  • Also on June 17th, Jon Pardi will release his newest album, California Sunrise.

Throwback Thursday Song

Josh Turner “Long Black Train” Ten years ago yesterday, this song was certified Gold by the RIAA. With the religious-themed lyrics and Turner’s baritone, “Long Black Train” epitomizes country music as much as cheating and drinking songs do. This is one of the best songs released in the first decade of the 2000s, in my opinion.

Non-Country Suggestion of the Week

Eric Johnson “Cliffs of Dover.” A throwback as well, but my friend and I were sharing some of our favorite guitar solos with one another this weekend, and he sent me this song. I had never heard of Eric Johnson before then, and will accept any hate that admission warrants. Johnson is a hell of a guitarist, and this solo is awesome.

Tweet of the Week

A promotional photo used for the televised CMA Fest as they announce that Brett Eldredge and Thomas Rhett will host the ABC special. Hooray for short jokes (or any kind of joke for that matter) against Thomas Rhett!

Two iTunes Reviews for Old Dominion

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Below isn’t a direct response to the dumb review above, but it works.

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