Always in the rotation at the closest CD player is Willie Nelson’s Hill Country Christmas album. It’s a simple down-home collaboration from Willie and Bobbie Nelson, as inspiring as anything Handel could work up. There are no silly takes on the season that pop up repeatedly on the airwaves each year. No overblown production. No Celine Dion-type histrionics. As Handel would say, Hallelujah for that.
Willie, with his battered Django-accented guitar and pianist Bobbie, who puts flair into her purpose, are joined by Freddy Fletcher on drums and Jon Blondell on bass and horns. Kimmie Rhodes provides backing vocals and via another Christmas miracle (or dubbing), Gene Autry joins Willie on his ’40s hit, “Here Comes Santa Claus.” So, as expected from Willie Nelson, it gets festive, but it also gets reflective.
With a thoughtful spirit Irving Berlin would appreciate, Nelson delivers a memorable version of “White Christmas,” just following the jolly moments of “Deck the Halls.” Is there an artist better at calling for or causing a celebration than Willie? Not really; his music is the stuff of joyful times, from the 4th of July on. That said, he also provides some clarity on what’s behind the Yule tide treasure.
The strongest musical moments of Hill Country Christmas are the Nelson takes on the traditional songs extolling the birth of Christ, such as “Away In A Manger,” “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” “Silent Night,” and “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.” Willie adorns the simplicity of the songs with an humble sheen, like a single string of lights on a bare Christmas tree. There are great results when one allows the natural beauty to come through.
Then too, particularly on the spiritual songs, is Bobbie’s joyful noise on the piano, mixing a high spirit with the sounds heard on high. Her unpretentious but artful work recalls my Aunt Mary Lois on the 88s at the country church when we sang “Dwelling in Beulah Land.” Feasting on the manna from a bountiful supply…..
The crowning achievement of Hill Country Christmas is “El Nino,” a Willie Nelson original. It’s a gorgeous song about the birth in the stable. There’s the sense of hope as Nelson sings, “He is born.” The great songwriter declares, “There’s a reason to carry on,” and “Write another song;” after all, “love is here.” Bobbie’s playing on the vocal and instrumental versions of the song captivate. There’s mystery in her approach, and since faith is said to be the evidence of things unseen, her work on the piano is heaven-sent.
Willie and Bobbie Nelson bring to mind the role of Linus Van Pelt when he recited from the second chapter of Luke, reminding Charlie Brown of the true meaning of Christmas. Good old Charlie Brown, disturbed with the commercialism of the holiday, couldn’t fathom the joy. His good sense made him cynical, but it kept hope out of reach. The words Linus spoke lifted Charlie Brown’s spirits and, amazingly enough, the acquisitive kids around him.
Even with the glow of A Charlie Brown Christmas, it must be remembered Charlie Brown was just 6 or 7 years old. He wasn’t a grown-up having a blue Christmas. Adults are equipped with yearnings hard to shake, as Joni Mitchell tells it, wistfully, on “River.”
“River” isn’t a Christmas song, but then again, it is. Mitchell bangs out a bluesy “Jingle Bells” on piano as “River” opens and sings that “It’s coming on Christmas” and people are “singing songs of joy and peace.” But with her man gone, there’s no joy and she’s not making peace with the situation. She just wants to get away. “I wish I had a river I could skate away on,” she sings.
Mitchell’s character in “River” blames herself. She was selfish and hard to handle, therefore she laments, “Now I’ve gone and lost the best baby that I ever had.” He’s not coming back. Living in Los Angeles, far away from the colder climes she knew most of her life, she desires a large enough patch of ice to skate away on. But she knows better. There’ll be no “White Christmas” in Southern California. Mitchell and the song’s character have to remember what Darlene Love said, “There’s never been such a day in old L.A..” Darlene Love, in the Phil Spector version of “White Christmas,” sang as one who just wants to be up north and see the snow. Mitchell’s character, although calling her environment a “crazy scene,” would be content, far from her prairie home, if she were joined again by the one who tried to help her. But she’s an exile in what many still think of as paradise. She could care less about the pleasant climate and being so close to where, as Neil Young wrote, “the mountains meet the sand.”
“River” is one of ten great songs on her Blue album, released in June ’71. Eight years after the album’s release, she told Rolling Stone there was “hardly a dishonest note in the vocals,” then adding, “At that period of my life, I had no personal defenses. I felt like a cellophane wrapper on a pack of cigarettes. I felt like I had absolutely no secrets from the world, and I couldn’t pretend in my life to be strong. Or be happy.” However, Mitchell did learn to be a keen observer of herself and those around her, which made her even sharper as a songwriter.
On an Atlanta stage one evening in ’73, David Crosby, with Graham Nash at his side, called Mitchell the greatest songwriter around. Crosby, quite generous with his thoughts, went into a long discourse of why he was so taken with her talents, but no words said it as well as did the version of Mitchell’s “For Free” he and Nash did that evening. Earlier that year Crosby had sung a fine rendition of “For Free” on the reunion album by the original Byrds. It was perhaps the best track on the album. However, that night in Atlanta, he really put it across. It was clear that he, like Mitchell, had lived the song. “For Free” is about a star in the music world checking out the everyday life from the protective bubble of limos and “velvet curtain calls.” The star plays for fortune but keeps thinking of a busker playing the street corners, making nothing, just “playing real good for free.”
Mitchell’s deft touch is evident on “For Free” and dozens of her songs, particularly “River.” There’s not much explaining; her backdrop is spare. On “River,” the sly and quick yet key inclusion of Christmas music on her piano brings technicolor clarity to the story. It’s familiar and it’s reality. Whatever the locale – L.A. or the cold Canadian prairies – a blue Christmas does come along. You can’t skate away from it.