various artists,
Christmas on the Lam
& Other Songs from the Season

(Red House, 2016)

I am not a devotee of Christmas albums, which usually define the industry notion of recorded music as "product," i.e., cash-generating pablum trafficked to undiscriminating rubes. My idea of desirable holiday fare is something like the Watersons' near-immortal Frost & Fire, still a revelation though released half a century ago, devoted to wintery interpretations of English folk songs and carols, and Robin Williamson's Winter's Turning (1986), which drops a mist of mythic resonance over what otherwise is just lousy weather. Not to mention the occasional inspired bluegrass disc; who can ever tire of "Beautiful Star of Bethlehem" and the Tex Logan evergreen "Christmas Time's a-Comin'"? Mostly, being attuned more to history than to faith tradition and disinclined to confuse the two, I associate Christmas music not with the church but with the commerce conducted at supermarkets and department stores.

If you're still with me, be assured that -- as its title ought to cue you -- Christmas on the Lam & Other Songs from the Season is not cynical product but the actual labor of respectable artists who have put some thought into what they're doing. So has the Red House Records staff, credited collectively as producer. In good part, this is a Christmas celebrated with such secular pursuits as partying, screwing, staring gloomily through windows at blizzards or shouting drunkenly at jailers. There's also a blue Christmas, accounting for "Blue Christmas," the one standard here, performed nicely by Larry Campbell & Teresa Williams who remind us, in case we'd forgotten there for a moment, that romantic disappointment can strike even at those times of the year when merriness is supposed to rule.

The one song acknowledging Christmas's first syllable is Jorma Kaukonen's touching voice-and-guitar reading of "The Baby Boy," the African-American spiritual sometimes known as "The Virgin Mary Had a Baby Boy" or "He Come from the Glorious Kingdom." Ruth Moody's hymn "Glory Bound," done here with her group the Wailin' Jennys, sounds gorgeously 19th-century. Meantime, the Pines turn in a suitably wistful accounting of Gordon Lightfoot's "Song for a Winter's Night." Charlie Parr's "Slim Tall's Christmas on the Lam," equivalent to a crazed shout from the deepest well of the Delta blues, manages to be at once shocking and hilarious.

A dozen cuts, 45 minutes of playing time, a generous mix of lovingly delivered folk, country, r&b and blues. Nothing anywhere, in short, to complain about. There are worse ways to prepare yourself for the holidays.

music review by
Jerome Clark

19 November 2016

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