Williamson Branch’s Very Merry Christmas is another release in the long tradition of bands and singers celebrating the season with a collection riffing on venerable standards and tossing a few originals on the same theme into the mix. It breaks with that tradition, however, on several fronts. They never make great fanfare of the fact, but the new collection features some of the most exemplary bluegrass musicianship the genre has ever enjoyed. It is a style that has always preached unpretentious musicianship as the surest way of reaching an audience and the group embraces that. Do not believe, however, for a second that they are anything but highly trained musicians.
Their singing talents leap out, of course. “Very Merry Christmas” opens the album with good cheer. Sadder and darker moments will come during the collection, but Williamson Branch relies on thoughtful moments of poetry when they turn from celebration. Bringing a release such as this off to an upbeat start is important and they know it. To that end, the assortment of dyed in the wool bluegrass instruments such as banjo, fiddle, and guitar streak ahead with brio and physicality. It’s never overwhelming. It’s exhilarating.
“God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” is one of Williamson Branch’s best examples of capacity for reinvention. They begin their version of the Christmas stalwart in a decidedly minor key and the reflection in the piece is palpable. It remains a constant presence, but the mood shifts when Williamson Branch shifts gears from the sedate opening into a blazing bluegrass romp sustaining the bulk of the song. “Be Born in Me” is another of the album’s gentler moments as Williamson Branch turns their essentially religious songwriting into anything but an avowal of zealotry. There’s a lot to like here, including the vocals, but many will find the fiddle playing adds an especially potent touch of yearning.
“Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” is a playful riff on the timeless classic featuring the vocal talents of Jimmy Fortune. It has a throwaway quality, but not in a bad way, as if Williamson Branch knows these songs in their DNA and can conjure such performances at will. “Good Tidings of Great Joy” is reminiscent of the earlier “Be Born in Me” in its poetic effect. It has a stronger country music influence than some of the other tracks and that familiar amble has a big effect on the song overall.
“Children, Go Where I Send Thee” is a brilliant example of the group’s vocal talents. This is acapella from beginning to end and it’s difficult, if not impossible, to imagine anyone upset by that when hearing the performance. Their skill arranging vocal harmonies is second to none. The sweet yet hard luck ridden songwriting of “Coal in My Stocking” is another song with strong retro country overtones without ever completely forsaking the group’s bluegrass identity.
It’s another song with a gentle mid-tempo pace that lulls listeners into its world. There isn’t a single bad performance included on Williamson Branch’s Very Merry Christmas and it makes a great holiday release for anyone interested in Yuletide themed music, even if they aren’t usually bluegrass fans.
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