Tis the season for holiday music. Time to gather around and sing a few songs with our friends and family. However, selecting CDs to play this time of year is a heavy responsibility fraught with danger. One wrong move and you’re considered a country rube or worse, an urban elitist.
Unfortunately, most Yule tunes generally fall into one of two categories: tried and true (and tired) classics or ponderous originals. You can make a safe choice and go with the standards. But let’s face it, Mitch Miller sing-alongs might have been fun with besotted relatives in 1970 but don’t quite make it today. On the other hand, an album of predictably soft, sensitive, politically correct, singer-songwriter baloney can drive even your heartiest listeners to the liquor cabinet.
I find my soon-to-be 7-year-old son, Will, to be an excellent judge of music. He is quickly bored by the basics and won’t sit through the ostentatious. The following stocking stuffers are three holiday albums he enjoys. I hope you find them as festive as we do.
A TRAVIS TRITT CHRISTMAS: LOVING TIME OF THE YEAR, by Travis Tritt, Warner Bros., 1992, $9.98.
From the opening track, Travis lets you know he’s not content to take it easy. He lays the spurs hard on dear old Rudolf and Santa’s sled rocks through "Winter Wonderland." My son loves all the extra whoops and hollers that Tritt adds to everything. I had to explain that when Travis screams "burn it up, Pig" he’s not baking a Christmas ham but urging on legendary keyboard player Hargus "Pig" Robbins. The band of all-stars include guitarists Reggie Young and John Jorgenson, and they lay some vicious licks on those holiday favorites. "Silver Bells" and "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" are especially righteous. There’s also a nice rendition of Sonny Curtis’ "Christmas in My Hometown."
ROOMFUL OF CHRISTMAS, by Roomful of Blues, Bullseye, Rounder Records, 1997, $12.98.
The blues, like reggae and polka, can get real redundant real fast. I find that most blues albums are painfully predictable. But there’s nothing like a good blues album to crank up a holiday party and this is a good one. Scratch that- this is a great one. Had Chicago’s own late, great Big Twist and the Mellow Fellows recorded a Christmas CD it might have sounded like this.
I saw Roomful of Blues in its formative years when I was at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. They’ve always played well and had interesting arrangements.
On this album a tight horn section adds a holiday punch that’s even stronger than your inebriated uncle’s homemade brew.
For obvious reasons my son’s favorite cut is "Run, Run Rudolph." Because of his love for this rendition I’ve dug up the Chuck Berry and Foghat versions for him to check out. I suggest that whenever your kids like a particular tune, let them hear other takes to expand their understanding of how individual and creative music should be. Unlike a lot of life, music can be what they feel and they want to convey. Rules should be broken here. With music, two plus two doesn’t always have to equal four.
Roomful of Blues offers up all the standards. Mel Torme, Irving Berlin and Sammy Cahn are here. But so are Fats Domino, Jimmy Rushing and Lowell Fulsom. The entire album swings like a healthy heartbeat and you’ll be disappointed when you put it away on Jan. 1. OK, this one’s so good you have my permission to listen to it until Super Bowl weekend.
CHRISTMAS PARTY: HOLIDAY PIANO SPIKED WITH SWING, by Dave McKenna, Concord Records, 1997, $9.98.
I’m trying to get Will into playing piano. It’s by far the best place to start musical training because everything is laid out in front of the kid’s eyes. He can see the relationship between notes, chords, tonalities and octaves.
Because I have vintage trumpets hanging on the wall, my son says he wants to take up trumpet. As much as I’d like him to be a chip off the old block, I’m trying to discourage that idea. The days of Louis Armstrong wannabes with a bright future are long gone. I repeat the old proverb about the skunk and the trumpet player, both found dead in the middle of the road. The difference? The skunk was on his way to a gig.
This album is by the pride and joy of Woonsocket, R.I. Dave McKenna is a hugely under-appreciated piano talent. He’s especially appealing in a solo format because he’ll switch gears in a heartbeat without having to drag a band along. This is almost perfect, 16 cuts, all of which are immensely pleasing. This is the CD to play while wrapping presents late on Christmas Eve.
I explain to Will how much music is being played with only 10 fingers and a lifetime of creativity. Put away Bing Crosby and expose your kid to a musical genius.
John Howell is a "Morning Show" co-host at WUSN US 99.5 Radio. He also produces and hosts "The Country Gold Show" on the Westwood One Radio Network.