'Tis the season for singing songs about cozying up to the fire so delightful while the weather outside is frightful. There's not a thing wrong with savoring scenes of chestnut-roasting togetherness — except for the fact that seasonal tunes tend to leave a good many people out in the cold. After all, "Let It Snow" just doesn't hold the same appeal when you have no roof over your head.
The makers of An East Nashville Christmas — producer Phil Harris and an army of 75 pickers, singers and graphic designers — had their homeless neighbors in mind when they assembled the 18-track collection and planned tie-in shows at four local venues. The entire effort is a benefit, and Harris and his co-executive producer/girlfriend Antonia Cove handpicked the National Health Care for the Homeless Council as the recipient of the proceeds.
"If you're not in the middle of it, you sort of forget the plight of these people," says Harris, who operated a studio in Oak Hill before relocating to Five Points. "Moving back into East Nashville just sort of inspired me to want to do something to give back."
Not coincidentally, NHCHC is also based in East Nashville. As the nonprofit's longtime executive director John Lozier explains via email, the council is devoted to "working for the right to health care and the right to housing," as well as "people's right to be part of the decisions that affect them."
In case that seems overly broad, Lozier offers examples of three of NHCHC's current nationwide efforts: advocating for Medicaid reform that covers the homeless; hiring and training formerly homeless people to help their peers find better options than the emergency room for routine health care; and launching respite programs that give homeless people who are sick somewhere off the streets to recuperate.
"Ultimately," writes Lozier, "we only end mass homelessness by rebuilding a sense of community, the notion that we are all fundamentally in this together, bound by common needs and mutual obligations. Most of our staff live and work in East Nashville, and being supported by the incredibly creative and sensitive music community in our own neighborhood is particularly meaningful to us."
An East Nashville Christmas isn't just a fundraiser for the cause — the album's content is actually shaped by it. This is the rare holiday release that reminds listeners of those left out of the largesse, even as it gestures toward the golden age of Christmas music, when Bing Crosby, Nat King Cole and their ilk crooned oh-so-suavely and swung oh-so-gently. Most of these new tracks also have a little swing to them, and draw on honky-tonk, Hawaiian, jazz and string-band styles from no later than the '60s.
Chris Scruggs had originally planned to cut "Blue Christmas," but wound up writing a song that set the tone for the album: "Will You Sleep Inside This Christmas." The amiable honky-tonk number brings to mind the way classic country recitations used to appeal to the conscience.
The song's hook arrives in the form of a question. "I think that's a nice way to trick the listener into using their own imagination," Scruggs says via email. " 'You should do this or that this Christmas' sounds preachy and robs the listener of the chance to come up with their own idea about how to help the homeless."
And that's just the first track. Todd Grebe, leader of the band Cold Country, penned the ragged-but-right bluegrass number "Let's Make Love for Christmas," which playfully proposes a cost-free gift exchange. Jesse Lee Jones conjures Marty Robbins — and a touch of Elvis — with his solo cover of the sentimental ballad "A Christmas Prayer." Even the original lineup of BR549 shows up: Founding member Gary Bennett wrote a song from the resigned point of view of a trucker who can't get home to his family, titled "A Truck Stop Christmas."
That last inclusion was quite the coup for Harris. He regularly hires BR multi-instrumentalist Donnie Herron to play on projects — when Herron's not out on Dylan's Never Ending Tour — and he cornered Herron during a session last December, wanting to know whether a reunion might be in the cards.
"And for the first time," says Harris, "after four or five times of asking, [Herron] said, 'Well, I don't know. It might be kinda fun. If there's anything that would get them back together, it would be something like this, for charity, for the homeless, where there's not any [long-term] commitment.' "
The rest of the BR guys agreed, but it took six months to find a day they could convene in the studio. In the end, they recorded and played a gig opening for Old Crow Medicine Crow all in the same week.
Besides the fact that the making of the album temporarily reunited a beloved band, another unexpected aspect of An East Nashville Christmas is how picker-centric it is. More than a quarter of the tracks are instrumentals, featuring the likes of Sam Bush and The Kenny Vaughan Trio.
Harris knows loads of players from his work as a bluegrass engineer. Not only that, his PH Balanced Studios sits right next door to the Fiddle House gear shop, a magnet for fiddlers, on the one-way street behind Woodland Studios, a little area he describes as the Music Row of the East Side.
Ultimately though, the spirit of hospitality, generosity and roots musicality trumped any thoughts of neighborhood exclusivity. Harris says that as long as potential contributors were willing to come to his neck of the woods, "There wasn't really any requirement about living in East Nashville to be a part of it."
"What we didn't want," Harris adds, "was to make the same Christmas record that everyone's made year after year with syrupy songs and super polish. We sort of wanted to make it funky and a little eclectic — a little bit like East Nashville is, you know?"
To purchase the album, visit eastnashvillechristmas.com.
Good Morning Doyle, You asked so I'll explain. Last evening "snowman69" made the first comment…
ahem. the above article says SHUGGIE FUCKIN' OTIS is coming to play Nashville. why are…
PS: Thought I'd check out who is playing a the Station Inn myself and it…
@snowman69, Margarita Festival this evening, May 17, from 6PM-9PM in the Gulch between Pine ST…
Anything cool going on this weekend though? Seems bleak out there