I often measure music by its ability to transport me to another place, whether it be traveling back through my memories or somewhere I’ve never been. By this measure, among others, the music on My Favorite Gifts – Christmas Album is some of the best I’ve heard in a long while.
Upon first listen I was transported from neighborhood streets once alive with song and spirit to the lonely muddy banks of the Mississippi, from an upbeat Mexican celebration to the birthplace of Jesus, and from a smokey Irish pub in New York City to the bedroom of a little boy too eager to sleep on Christmas Eve. Lyrically, each song touches on different elements of the season, including introspective reflection on the past, jovial celebration of holiday traditions, hopefulness, goodwill to man, the blessings of Jesus Christ, and even the role of organized religion in the commercialization of Christmas.
Released last month, My Favorite Gifts brings together the musical talents and creativity of Overmountain Men, The Avett Brothers, The David Wax Museum, Jim Avett, siblings David and Jessica Lea Mayfield, Paleface, Nick and the Babes, Mark Crozer, and The Wood Brothers. This compilation leaves behind the overdone holiday standards and treats our ears to unique interpretations of those not-so-well-known songs, in addition to a few original pieces.
The idea for this album was born from a conversation between Bob Crawford (The Avett Brothers) and Dolph Ramseur (Ramseur Records) on December 26, 2009. Crawford, who shared his thoughts via email, recalled the conversation.
“I knew at some point we (The Avett Brothers) would be asked to be involved in a Christmas album. I wanted us to do it ourselves and with our friends first. Dolph immediately said that it needed to be a project for charity. At the time, our good friend and Avett tour manager Dane Honeycutt’s mother Vickie was fighting breast cancer. Sadly, a few months later Vickie passed away and we knew then that we were going to direct the charity towards some cancer fighting organization,” he wrote.
Musicians quickly signed on to the charitable project. Crawford and Ramseur, who produced the album together, encouraged artists to choose songs that were special and intimate to them. This approach fostered the creation of a purely eclectic and original collection of Christmas music.
When I first listened to the album in its entirety I was immediately taken by how different the songs were stylistically. Instantly, I could hear the care that was taken to choose songs that expressed each artist’s or group’s feelings about Christmas. I wondered how the artists came to choose or write their songs. To my delight and appreciation, most of the contributing musicians shared thoughts about the creative process with me via email.
David Childers on his song Rambling Door to Door: “The subject of Rambling Door To Door is the group of boys I used to get together with on Christmas Eve to go caroling. We were not the most well behaved, but we all loved it. The character singing in the song is looking back almost 50 years to his youth. He sees what was then, and he sees what is now. The now is not as nice a place, but he can still sing to himself if no one else wants it. There’s a joy in singing, but even more so in singing those songs that are of a short season or time.”
David Mayfield on On Christmas Eve: “It was a real treat and an honor being invited to be a part of My Favorite Gifts. I’ve always wanted to do something for the holidays, but was sure I couldn’t do a standard any better than Bing [Crosby], so I was floored when Bob Crawford suggested John Hartford’s On Christmas Eve. I’ve always loved that song and never would have thought of recording it.”
David Wax on La Rama: “The David Wax Museum delves into American and Mexican folk traditions. We thought it would be a great addition to the Christmas record to take an unknown Christmas song from Mexico and arrange a bi-lingual version of it. There’s a centuries-old custom of musicians carrying a Christmas branch (“La Rama”) between houses and playing this particular song in exchange for food and tips.”
Nick Bailey on Christmas Time is Here: “Bob approached me and said he would like to produce a track for Nick and the Babes on the album. The arrangement of the song is actually for a bunch of little kids singing. It’s really high-pitched, so we had to do a different arrangement, but I still wanted it to sound like the song and be recognizable. I picked the song because it has always been one of my favorites. It is more of a sad and lonely, reflective song. I think that when people get older, Christmas takes on a different meaning. Sometimes it becomes more reflective…thinking less about presents and more about family.”
Jim Avett on writing The Brightest Star: “I wrote The Brightest Star because I thought everybody else was going to write an original! I had not preconceived anything…it just sort of came out. I have a lot of gospel in my background so naturally the song reflects my feelings that all gospel, including Christmas carols, should be theologically correct, which I think this one is.”
Paleface on Fairytale of New York: “Bob Crawford called me when we were recording our album One Big Party and asked if I wanted to be a part of a Christmas compilation that he was putting together. I said of course and in my mind flashed on the Pogues song, Fairytale of New York. It’s always been one of the best and most under-appreciated Christmas songs I’ve ever heard. He asked me to think about what song I might want to do and we hung up. When we spoke for the second time about what song I remember [Crawford] saying, ‘Dolph and I thought it would be great if you did Fairytale,’ without me having mentioned it to him yet so that was all I needed. We had Stuart from Bombadil join us and had a fun afternoon recording it. I remember saying that everybody should just relax and have fun cause ‘this song is so good its hard to mess up’.”
Mark Crozer on writing Next Christmas: “The song itself has quite a long history. I came up with the melody for it when I was briefly living in New York just after Christmas 2008. Then it sat around for a year before I was sitting down one day thinking I’d really like to write a Christmas song. It’s been a crazy fantasy since I was a kid to have a festive hit in the charts that gets brought out year after year and becomes part of the Christmas tradition. In the UK, where I’m originally from, the Christmas single is quite a big deal. So, as I was sitting there I suddenly remembered the tune I’d written a year earlier and the words just came out in one go the way they do on occasion. I wanted to write something that reflected the hope for better times ahead that I think everyone feels at this time of year. It is a very hopeful song, but laced with a little of the irony that we Brits love so much.”
Crawford on I Thank God and more: “Seth [Avett] heard it from a Sam Cooke recording. We had already kicked around the idea of other, more traditional songs. I Thank God is very unique while maintaining one of the key themes of the Christmas season which is thankfulness for the blessings of God. I am also honored to work with the Overmountain Men. David Childers is one of the greatest song writers of our time. I think he and Jim Avett could write an album of Christmas songs that would redefine the genre.”
The creative process of writing or adapting, and recording holiday favorites for My Favorite Gifts was augmented by the fact that the album would contribute to a cause much larger than those involved. Many of the artists tied to this project were close friends to Vickie Honeycutt and remain close to her family. So it seemed only fitting when Crawford and Ramseur decided that all album profits would be donated directly to the Vickie Honeycutt Foundation.
The Vickie Honeycutt Foundation, which was formed shortly after her passing, honors “a woman who served as a beacon of compassion for so many.” Honeycutt, a graduate of UNC-Greensboro, taught at Mt. Pleasant High School in her native Cabarrus County for 32 years, and was known for her caring nature and dedication to help others succeed. According to the website, the foundation’s goal is to provide assistance to “teachers and educators battling cancer so that their sole focus can be on recovery.” With charity at the forefront, several artists openly expressed what it meant to work on such a special project.
Mo, drummer for Paleface, responded, “It’s pretty awesome to get to be on the same album with so many greats, and it’s a true honor to get to celebrate with them the memory and life of a dear friend’s mom who was so sweet and caring to all.”
Suz Slezak of The David Wax Museum echoed Mo’s sentiments.
“It’s always special to have the opportunity to support causes we care about with our music. We were also touched to be included in such a stellar line-up of bands, many of whom we listen to on a regular basis,” she wrote.
Mark Crozer, who is likely a new name for fans of this grouping of artists, was also very moved by the direction and purpose of the album.
“When I learned that it was to be a charity album for such a good cause I was even keener to be involved. Teaching has been in my family for generations and I have dabbled myself. I’ve also lost friends and family to cancer so I wanted to do something to help raise funds for projects that support people living with cancer. I think the Vickie S. Honeycutt Foundation is a truly wonderful organization, and I’m so thrilled to be part of this project. It’s also a thrill for me to be in such distinguished company as The Avett Brothers, Jessica Lea Mayfield, The Wood Brothers and David [Childers] of course. It’s a great album and pretty diverse which makes it even more interesting,” Crozer wrote.
As a “lifelong friend” of Vickie’s, Jim Avett was “honored to be a part of anything to do with her and her family” as well as “to be included in a compilation CD with such talented creative people.”
Collectively, My Favorite Gifts is a wonderful work of art that will please the senses, revive the true spirit of Christmas, and benefit those in need well into the future. It is a Christmas album with far more substance than Santa, making it easy to enjoy all year-long. It is a must-have so please visit your local record store or amazon.com/iTunes to purchase My Favorite Gifts for yourself and your loved ones.