various artists,
Home for Christmas: Voices from the Heartland
(Rounder, 2007)

The 12 songs gathered into this holiday collection represent a diversity of voices, origins and styles that are symbolic of the all-encompassing genre of American music. Among these deserving artists are Hall of Famers and award-winners of both genders, various races and a wide range of ages and experience. Nine selections were taken from previously-released albums and thus individually might be familiar to some listeners. But it's a safe bet that not even the most avid holiday music fan will own all of those recordings. Enter Home for Christmas: Voices from the Heartland.

The CD begins with the distinctive western sound of Riders in the Sky and "I'll Be Home for Christmas." The foursome's intricate and practiced harmonies are well suited for the song and the sentiment that goes with it. Simple guitar work, an accordion and cowboy fiddle round out the instrumentation.

Next up is Sam Moore's funky back-beat version of "Santa Claus is Coming to Town." Best known for being half of the Hall of Fame-honored duo Sam & Dave, Moore offers this selection with a brass-infested backup band and a raucous sax interlude, and they're sure to get your head a-bobbin' and your feet a-steppin'.

Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver provide a three-carol cluster. "The First Noel," "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear" and "Joy to the World" are performed in four-part a cappella vocals (frosted with a slight country twang) that smoothly transition from one song to the next. The tones create a barbershop feel, complete with the requisite octave-dropping bass on the last note.

We're transported to an after-dinner lounge for Charles Brown's "Please Come Home for Christmas." His baritone gives the appeal a wistful jazz blues feel, and a guitar and sax interlude from his band completes the picture.

Hall of Famer Wilson Pickett rises from his grave to rock us with "Jingle Bells," which includes at one point an exclamatory scream that Little Richard would be proud of. Pickett's final admonitions to "Keep on ridin'!" and "Ride, ride, ride, ride!" are especially inspiring if you happen to be on the road at the time. Sadly, we lost Pickett in early 2006.

If "Blue Christmas" isn't the most appropriate holiday song for Leon Redbone to sing, then I don't know what is. The message of the lyric matches his distinctive voice. We can almost see his signature white Panama hat, or picture an old 78-rpm player spinning the wax, complete with a sound trumpet attached to the needle. Gone are the wavery singers you used to hear warbling behind Elvis. This is pure Leon. Deal with it.

The kings of a cappella, The Persuasions, take us back to the 1960s with "You're All I Want for Christmas." With a punchy "dum, dum-dum" bass line and a plea that addresses "my darling," this song is reminiscent of The Drifter's "Save the Last Dance for Me." Those bass notes are infectious, and many listeners may find themselves dum-dum-dumming along without warning.

Shirley Alston, former lead singer of the Shirelles, entertains us with a really rockin' version of "Winter Wonderland." Her rich voice is accompanied by a band that provides a Clarence Clemons-like sax solo and a Blues Brothers ending. The rock beat is simultaneously the same rhythm as a cha-cha, believe it or not. Get up and dance and see for yourself.

The closing song is "Oh, Holy Night" performed by Irma Thomas, the soul queen of New Orleans. Her deep and poignant rendition includes the third verse, one that's not always sung: "Truly He taught us to love one another / His law is love and His Gospel is peace." Though hers is not the strongest selection on the disc, it's only fitting that the collection ends with someone with New Orleans connections. Thomas closed her club there after Hurricane Katrina destroyed the city.

I've saved my three favorites for last. Rhonda Vincent's clear blue-sky bluegrass tones fit well with "Let It Snow." This is a finger-snapper that features an easy-going accompaniment by a rhythm guitar, a dobro guitar and a fiddle. The brass players of Roomful of Blues have a swinging go with "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." The alto sax, piano and tenor sax improvisations lend much to the sound. And the male vocalist reminds me of the version by Harry Connick Jr. (as showcased on the When Harry Met Sally soundtrack) and, by extension, one done by a younger Frank Sinatra. What a wonderful sound!

The jewel of the collection, in my opinion, is Deana Carter's arrangement of "The Christmas Song." Her bright but wispy voice is matched with just two well-picked guitars. Again, it's finger-snappin' good. Too bad Mel Torme isn't still around to hear what she's done with his little ditty, written on a whim on a hot July day. I think he would approve.

Pop Home for Christmas into your dashboard CD player when you're driving to grandmother's house for that holiday dinner. Whether you sing along, tap your toe on the accelerator or just listen appreciatively, the miles will soon dash by without notice. And you'll show up at Granny's doorstep with a smile on your face.

review by
Corinne H. Smith

22 December 2007

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