various artists,
A Pinecastle Christmas Gatherin'
(Pinecastle, 2003)

Ahhhh, compilation albums -- it must be Christmas time! What other time of year features so many artists on one album? True to the season, Pinecastle Records offers some of their best bluegrass artists on A Pinecastle Christmas Gatherin', with a collection offering typical and not-so-typical Christmas songs.

This is a true bluegrass album, even though it's of the Christmas variety. There's a ton of banjo pickin', but there are also some examples of the notorious slower pace. Some songs, such as "A Carpenter, a Mother and a King," "Away in a Manger," "Heaven's Light" and especially "Christmas Waltz," take a slow, sluggish pace that will make anyone's Christmas blue. I recommend these if you want to cry while sipping your cocoa. ("When It's Christmas in Virginia" almost makes this group, but Michelle Nixon's vocals and the nice lyrics redeem the pace.)

However, if you want merry cheer, there are also plenty of songs providing that, too. "Country Christmas" has a toe-tapping whimsy and great harmony vocals. Ross Nickerson's instrumental version of "Oh, Come All Ye Faithful" is phenomenal, with a lightning tempo that infuses energy into an old hymn. "White Christmas" by Charlie Waller & the Country Gentlemen starts out with an interesting hook -- an almost Spanish-sounding mandolin -- offering a new approach to the almost-tired Irving Berlin song. I even like the upbeat style of "White House Christmas" despite its shameless self-promoting quality.

Now, I'm used to hearing "Go Tell It on the Mountain" performed by a massive gospel choir with vocals stretching across creation. This version by the Special Consensus doesn't sound a thing like that. The vocals are very subtle and keep a slow pace, while Greg Cahill's excellent banjo gets to blaze a fiery trail.

A total surprise (but a great one) is "Snoopy's Christmas" by Nothin' Fancy. This great Christmas song is rarely covered by anybody anymore, and that's a shame. I never thought a bluegrass version of this song would work, but doggone if it doesn't! Now I just need to get the chorus of "Christmas Bells, Those Christmas Bells..." out of my head.

A Pinecastle Christmas Gatherin' is a decent collection of traditional and less familiar Christmas songs in a bluegrass style. This album leaves an impression of all the feelings of the season: happiness and sadness, joy and sorrow, love and loss. If you're not filled with holiday cheer by the end of "White House Christmas," there are some hidden tracks offering glad tidings from the various artists. While the songs are hit-and-miss, this personal touch tips the scale for this album, making it a welcome musical addition for the holidays.

- Rambles
written by C. Nathan Coyle
published 20 December 2003

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