On Christmas Island

Folks, there’s no glossing over it. The world has not been a gentle place of late. Any good faith attempt to follow and comprehend the news of the world is rewarded with some agonizing and depressing situations. We at Roots don’t live on an island. And whether it’s inane politics or the devastating national tragedy in Newtown, we are aware it’s going on, even as our show goes on. And while yes, it’s just a radio show, we continue to believe that sharing culture and collaborative music is the best antidote to the toxic and the hateful. I came very close on Wednesday night to asking our audience to share a moment of silence for the children and teachers killed at Sandy Hook Elementary, and maybe I’m asking for one now. But let me instead dedicate retroactively a lovely night of peace and music where all was calm and bright to all who’ve had it hard or horrible this year – including the victims of Hurricane Sandy and more to the point of our night, to those who don’t know if they will sleep inside this Christmas.

Our season-closing show celebrated the artists on and sentiments behind An East Nashville Christmas, and we managed to cycle a lot of artists on and off stage – I think more than we’ve ever tried – and the result was a joyful variety show that produced as many off-stage hugs and visits as it did on-stage musical moments. It wasn’t sentimental Currier and Ives. Our friends rocked the barn. But the point is that they were all friends. The community that made An East Nashville Christmas not only possible but really, really good (I have it on right now) is one of the most interconnected and interesting webs of humans I’ve ever known.

The first musician humans to take the stage (after Jim Lauderdale’s own Christmas song “Holly And Her Mistletoe”) were The Danberrys. I think I’m going to be a major fan of these guys, what with their updated ancient tones and their top flight harmonies. They did “O Come Emanuel” in a slow and surprisingly effective tempo. “Company Store” was their secular number and it was indicative of their songwriting chops. The duo theme continued with Jeff & Vida, and that Vida Wakeman has an amazing country voice. She sounded bittersweet on “Look At Me” and adorable on the Hawaiian Christmas song “Mele Kalikimaka.”

Evidence of how deeply the East Nashville scene is invested in country and Nashville’s legacies kept coming, with Todd Grebe & Cold Country doing the swingy “Let’s Make Love For Christmas” and bluegrass band Off The Wagon kicking it on “Come Home Caroline” before celebrating the coming new year with a rousing “Auld Lang Syne.” The tune sounds great on banjo, mando and guitar (our own Michael Jezewski played some sweet flattop), and when all the night’s ladies came on stage to lend their voices to the chorus, goosebumps followed.

Grace Adele’s “Christmas Island” is the track on the ENC album that always makes me smile, with its collision of honky tonks and swimming trunks, and last night Julie Lee, Jen Duke and Dorothy Daniel joined Grace on stage to back her up on this quirky, escapist song. You took me there, girls. Then Grace twanged it up hard on “Sweet And Lonesome,” which included some cowboy boot clogging. After that, Antonia Cove charmingly channeled Brenda Lee with “Rocking Around The Christmas Tree” and Rachael Hester lifted her smashing Connie Smith-like voice in a deeply country “Pretty Paper.” And that set ended with the unexpected and remarkably enjoyable duo of Derek Hoke and Jen Duke. Their “Sweet Pea” was bouncy and awesome and their “Winter Wonderland” a paradoxically warm wonder.

Chris Scruggs contributed an original song for the CD, inspired at the very last minute, and it’s a winner. He said in our interview last night that he hoped by framing the song as a question, that “Will You Sleep Inside This Christmas?” would be thought provoking rather than preachy, and he sure pulled that off. It’s a count-thy-blessings song if ever there was one. That gave way to the show’s climax, which included Mike Farris singing an impassioned “White Christmas” in a very un-Bingish way, which is to say with pedal steel and fiddle and loads of vocal soul. “O Holy Night” was set to a slow tom tom tattoo and spacey guitar. Lush and lovely. Trumpet wizard Rod McGaha came next with a New Orleans beat and some luxurious, funky horn on “Frosty.” Julie Lee, who really does have one of the stunning voices of Nashville, sang “Beautiful Night,” a song from her long-ago Stillhouse Road album that sounds written for this season. It was transcendent.

Then Farris, McGaha and Lee reprised their trio performance from the East Nashville CD of “Go Tell It On The Mountain,” milking the groove of that fantastic song and aided by the always groovy Sam Bush, whose mandolin just HAPPENED to be in his car. And Jim returned to lead one of the largest gatherings of musicians ever as they did “Jingle Bell Rock,” dividing the lyrics among about a hundred singers. It was a Christmas miracle! Seriously though, from the strung up lights to the peanut butter cookies from Emmy Joe Bilbrey, and above all the camaraderie and music, it was exactly the tone for a complex season. We rejoice. We pray. We attend. We embrace our loved ones like never before.

Have a Merry Christmas and we’ll see you in 2013.

Craig H.

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