It's late August, somewhat humid and 85 degrees outside and I'm sitting in an air-conditioned room listening to, uh, Christmas music? Well, not really. This morning I am watching AND listening to Christmas music. It's research, man! Honest! And a yearning for the past and a way of life. Watching this DVD takes me back to my childhood, in a way, the people involved obviously wrapped up in a world slowly losing ground to the technological stuff we were warned about in how many science fiction novels, and I long for that simpler life, the old times. I remember like it was yesterday growing up in a small logging town in Oregon as a child, many of the houses not much more than shacks in certain parts of the town. I remember outhouses and drag chains on cars and pickups (Oklahomans used them to prevent the buildup of static electricity and we had an influx of Oklahomans at the time, work being hard to find) and strangers who would become friends and neighbors with their southern drawls and talk of chicory in coffee. I remember cigarettes and coffee everywhere, in fact. It was a way of life.
And I remember churches. There was a standing joke among the people who lived in town that if you took away gas stations, bars and churches, there would be little left. Indeed, driving through the town you might think there was nothing else there, a church, a gas station and a tavern anchoring virtually every four-cornered cross-street. They seemed to be the three essentials for life outside of grocery stores, and there weren't many of them thanks to hunting and fishing and gardening and other ways to get food besides handing money to the grocer.
These thoughts wash over me as I picture in my mind riding my bike with my buddy Smitty up the baseball field to play home run derby on a Sunday and seeing parking lots full of people in suits and dresses visiting after church services, the kids looking like they were dressed for someplace better than school and, I am sure, wishing they too could be heathens because to a kid, baseball sometimes ruled everything.
Those, like I stated before, were simpler times. Arguments were settled with fists as much as courts. The elite lived in new areas and in new homes just to be away from the riff-raff, or so we thought (I was riff-raff all the way, my father being a logger, an occupation saved for the less educated). There was prejudice and bigotry and hate, just the same as there was everywhere, but it was our prejudice and bigotry and hate and we dealt with it as best we could. Maybe we weren't mountain, not in the sense of mountain people, but we were isolated at the base of the Cascades and lived within ourselves until the improvements in the road system made us a gateway town through the mountains.
I know the people on this album, or knew them. And not these people exactly but people just like them. Sure, few of them played instruments and the music in the town mostly came from within churches or from without the town altogether, but I knew the people, you know? Good people, mostly. Honest people, to a large degree. People who worried about their kids and the future and their places in it. People who had lots in common and who were there for others in need when lightning struck. Sure, I make it sound idyllic, but it is that way for a kid not yet ready to make his own way in the world, cloaked in the warmth of the familiar.
You get lots of familiar on this album/CD, by the way. You get Christmas and all of the trimmings—the music, of course, but more. You get the actual concert filmed as it was recorded and if you want, you can dive into a section of the DVD left to the members of this large group to reminisce about their childhoods and way of life as they grew up. People like Steve Gulley and Dale Ann Bradley and Audie Blaylock. Some of the best in bluegrass, to my ears. You get Christmas music the way we have it today sans rock and roll—the carols and the not-so-carols, for hymns are part of the Christmas experience for the religious. Yes, friends, religion is part of Christmas, as much as we in this modern world seem to want it not to be. It is the way it was. It is the way it is.
The Christmas songs are a bit more than I expected, not just lame recreations of songs heard on the radio. The masters of music go out of their way to make sure of it. The arrangements, simple as they are, take songs like Joy To the World and O Holy Night into a slightly different dimension, giving them that little bluegrass kick, and they toss in some songs we do not normally relate to that holiday— In the Sweet Bye and Bye and Go Tell It On the Mountain and Amazing Grace. The thing is, they are done so well and fit so seamlessly in the mix that we do not even notice.
Bottom line, this is Christmas not only the mountain way, but as I used to know it. As it appeared on the Grand Ole Opry now and again. As it would have appeared on stage if we had been lucky enough to have attracted a troupe of traveling mountain musicians. As it should be.
I'm usually not a guy to promote labels in reviews, but let me finish this by saying that if you love bluegrass and country with just a flavoring of the grass, there is no better label to research than Rural Rhythm. I have a handful of RR releases in my collection and am always pulling at the reins for a few bucks to pick up another because their catalogue is packed. This is only one example. There are many.
So, in this humid end-of-summer weather, amidst everything BUT Christmas (I think they will start cranking up the ads next week), let me wish you all a Merry Christmas. You might think about getting a jump on the Season, now that I think about it, by picking this up. This is vocal and instrumental bluegrass at its best.
Edited by: David N. Pyles
Copyright 2013, Peterborough Folk Music Society.
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