Opening a Rich Christmas Vault

Christmas in the Mountains: Bluegrass Songs for the Season (Rebel)
Various Artists

By Bob Mitchell

The liner notes say it took "several years to gather songs worthy of a new anthology," but Rebel used the time wisely and, 43 years after their first Christmas recording, they have given us an outstanding collection of holiday music designed to last another 50 years. Fourteen tracks provide a showcase for nine groups including Larry Sparks, The Country Gentlemen, Ralph Stanley and Paul Williams.

I have always enjoyed "Blue Christmas" but for the first time I believe the vocalist. When Larry Sparks says he'll be lonesome, you know he's telling the truth. And his cover of "Christmas Time's A-Comin'," popularized by Bill Monroe, is as good as any you will ever hear. The Gents contribute their classic "Christmas Time Back Home" and an unusual "Silent Night," which sounds as though it may have been a home recording in front of the fireplace. Ralph Stanley presents one of his signature tunes, "Beautiful Star of Bethlehem," but what makes this cut special is that it features a young and then-unknown Keith Whitley on lead vocal. (This reviewer is delighted that Rebel's vaults continue to let us hear voices stilled by an untimely death. To hear Whitley and Duffy again is an unexpected gift unto itself.) Paul Williams and the Victory Trio contribute a powerful original song, "Emmanuel" and the nostalgic "I Can't Go Home This Christmas."

Another gratifying surprise was three excellent selections from the Wildwood Valley Boys. The opening track, "Christmas in Caroline" features twin fiddles that make you long for some hot chocolate on a snowy night. "Christmas Time" and "When It's Snowing in the Mountains" make you happy to be alive.

This project is a well-balanced mix of old favorites and newer selections destined to become old favorites. It captures both the spiritual and commercial aspects of an important season. For example, "The Christmas Letter" by Tommy Edwards is the story of a wealthy businessman stranded on Christmas Eve in a poverty ridden rural area when his cell phone won't work. He eventually finds a shack with a phone but it is his exposure to a family's bare existence that helps him find the true meaning of Christmas. Ralph Stanley II delivers a compelling rendition of "Mary, Merry Christmas," the last song written by his legendary uncle, Carter Stanley. The tune was written a few weeks before the Elder Stanley's death as tender goodbye to his wife. Remaining highlights include Lost and Found's sentimental arrangement of "Christmas in Virginia," and Bill Carroll's lovely "Slowly Fall The Snowflakes."

If you are searching for a stocking stuffer for a friend or yourself, this recording will always be a welcome listen.