A Very Austin Christmas: The Making Of A Texas Tradition [Part Two]

A Country Christmas Album

Tonight in Austin there is somebody playing some music that is good as anybody on the planet, and chances are there will be about 20 people there. They will understand the craft and history and be able to express themselves with music the way the rest of us just dream about. I don’t really remember why I started recording the Christmas EP, but I think it had a lot to do with a local musician I saw play. His name was Slim Richey and he was one of those rare people, an Austin treasure.

When I told him I was thinking of recording some holiday tunes and asked if he would play on them, he readily agreed. And when I told him my vision was to have the recordings be in the vibe of Julie London’s classic “Cry Me A River,”  Slim told me why I had chosen him though I didn’t know it myself at the time. His guitar hero was Barney Kessell who played the guitar on that amazing recording. Slim’s style and guidance truly shaped the record - he wrote and performed the most beautiful arrangements for the songs we picked, and even helped me pick the musicians that gave that classic flavor that makes those recordings feel so good. I was trying to keep the EP low key enough to not get into trouble with Kelly’s record label, so I printed up a few and dropped em off at the local radio stations and they started they started playing it. We loved the picture our buddy Marty Butler did for the cover:

I shot Slim in Bruce’s backyard studio, along with the rest of the guys in the band. The Boars Nest, as I recall the studio being referred to, was really just a backyard shed crammed with amazing talent and a reel to reel recorder. Bruce was always avoiding the newer digital technology, so I followed his lead and shot on medium format film.
— Marty Butler from The Butler Bros
slim (1).jpg

We printed two or three thousand that first year, just selling it at Waterloo Records and them calling up when they needed more. We were just going to give it away, you know, at the Christmas shows as a thank you to everyone who came year after year. It had been a few years in, and we felt the need to acknowledge that and record it. We approached it in a really simple way - we were just recording some fun holiday music together, like a Christmas card. That first release felt great: a hyper local release in the community spirit of the holidays.

Kelly’s record label did, in fact, find out about our little EP. To our surprise, they weren’t mad about it at all - they wanted to release it nationwide! So, Rykodisc asked us to add a few songs to make it a full length record. The hunt for new songs began once again to round out our holiday repertoire. We ended up adding “Santa Looks A Lot Like Daddy,” that really depressing Louvin Brothers tune “Shut In At Christmas,” and a live recording of “Okie Christmas.”

Our sound engineer had recorded a couple shows one year including an especially good one where, for the very first time, I had played a Christmas song I had written. Titled “Oklahoma Christmas,” the song is a true story of my first trip to meet Kelly’s family in the tiny town of Sentinel, Oklahoma.

Kelly’s family has a long history in there - her mother and father were highschool sweethearts there and her family would gather there for the holidays every year. Her bringing me a long was a big deal to me, but the culture clash was way harder than I expected. Her very, very religious family was irritated by the PG swear words I was using, which were pretty much the religion in the household I grew up in, and they had me playing a losing game of Star Trek Monopoly. By the 4th or 5th time I had used the Lord’s name in vain, I figured I was done for. The song ended up fitting right in with our left of center holiday show and that live recording really captures a magic moment when we surprised the crowd with a song nobody had heard before. It’s not “Viva Terlingua,” but it’s really cool.

Another song was on the original EP but we chose to keep is one of my favorites - Kelly’s rendition of “In The Bleak Midwinter,” a song she had sung in her church. Being in Austin, the organist in her tiny little Methodist church was a chamber music virtuoso and classical music scholar Michelle Shumann.  So, sticking to the roots of the song, we got Michelle to play on the recording and local musical genius Eric Hokannen to write string arrangements. It really is a great little record with some truly inspired playing from many friends - a wonderful community coming together, the way it should be on the holidays.