Twelve Songs of Christmas
Tav Falco of Panther Burns

Tav Falco of Panther Burns

May 29, 2019

I was interviewing Dave Alvin when he realized he had sat down next to an ant bed, and while talking to Tav Falco of Panther Burns for this podcast, he briefly hung up on me while the bandmate driving the van got popped for speeding. Such is the glamorous life of the touring musician.

Falco made his name in Memphis in the early '80s by occupying the space where punk, art, and the avant-garde intersected. In 1979, he performed a cover of "Train Kept A-Rollin'" on a local television show, and that version prompted the host to ask, "That's anti-music, right?" then announce, "That's the worst sound I've heard come out on television." His Behind the Magnolia Curtain (1982) chronicles that phase of his career, and while his music has always come from a personal place, it was never as out as that again.

In 2017, he surprised fans when he released A Tav Falco Christmas, which featured him playing some of the most popular songs in the Christmas songbook in ways that took the songs at face value. It seemed odd at first blush, but the title of his 1994 album--The World We Knew--could serve as his mission statement. His fascination with what we've lost over time was always going to lead him to Christmas music at some point. 

For more on Tav Falco and Panther Burns, here's a critical essay I wrote in 2012 an interview with him from the same time, and a review of the photography exhibit that he showed at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, accompanied by a showing of his films, and a concert by Panther Burns.

Chuck Mead

Chuck Mead

September 4, 2019

Americana artist Chuck Mead loves Christmas music and has performed and recorded it on his own and with the band that got him in the public eye, BR5-49. In today's conversation, he talks about getting a chance during one of those periods when country music labels signed country traditionalists, only to discover that radio and audiences wanted whatever's current more.

Still, Mead's love of Christmas music has professionally come in short bursts for him. A single here, a compilation track there. As a songwriter, he thinks he has said all he has to say in "The Happy Holiday Song" and doesn't see himself doing an album of other people's songs or writing an album's worth for himself. 

Still, the Christmas tracks he has been involved with have all been interesting including his South Texas rock steady cover of Eddy Arnold's "Will Santa Come to Shanty Town," an idea that came to him from via his A&R man on the project, Cheetah Crome from punk band The Dead Boys. The experience inspired the track "I'm Not the Man for the Job" for Mead's most recent album, Close to Home.

For the album, Mead recorded at Sam Phillips Recording Studio, continuing his run through legendary roots music recording studios. Memphis isn't obvious in the album's sound, but the choice made sense because Mead served as musical director for the Broadway musical Million Dollar Quartet--a story based on Memphis Sun Studios' legends Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins. 

In our conversation, we talk about BR5-49 performing a cover of Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen's "Daddy's Drinking Our Christmas Away" with Marty Stuart on an episode of The Marty Stuart Show. For the episode, I cut the conversation before the song. Here's the clip in its entirety

For more on Chuck Mead, you can visit him at his website and his Facebook page, and you can get Close to Home, his previous albums and merch from his website's store. If you have comments, suggestions or favorite Christmas songs, you can find me at the 12 Songs homepage and Facebook page.  

Jon Langford

Jon Langford

September 11, 2019

Punk rock “was about how rules were made to be broken and making your own entertainment,” The Mekons’ Jon Langford said in 2004. The idea that punk meant choosing your own path and following your own muse has helped the punk band remain musically and conceptually provocative, and it gave him license to incorporate country, folk, reggae, pop, and glam into the music he has made with The Mekons, The Waco Brothers, The Three Johns, in side projects and on his own. And, it led to Christmas music.

Jon Langford is the quintessential indie artist, working his music and art to put together a paycheck and body of work he can live with, and his Christmas recordings reflect that. Each comes from a situation where the marketplace and inspiration overlapped, and in those situations Langford and his co-conspirators on a project found ways to give the songs integrity. In our conversation, we talk about a children’s music project he was involved with, Wee Hairy Beasties, as well as an impromptu Waco Brothers’ Christmas song, and “Christmas Carol, Christmas Ray,” a reflection on the holiday season when he was growing up in Wales that he recorded with the Men of Gwent.

Along the way, he mentioned the folk song “Green Grow the Rushes,” so we’ve included a version of it by The Singing Milkmaids, and because he mentioned Slade’s “Merry Christmas Everybody,” we finally get an opportunity to play it. The episode ends with Langford reading a revised version of “Twas the Night Before Christmas” written as a promo for Chicago’s Bloodshot Records, which has released his Waco Brothers’ albums. It’s excerpted in the episode, but here it is in its entirety.

 

Since his experiences in Newport in South Wales form a big part of this conversation, I’ve posted his video for “Christmas Carol, Christmas Ray”—which we talk about—and a clip of a Welsh holiday tradition that he only heard about as a kid but never saw with his own eyes. He couldn’t explain it, but here it is, with the singing in Welsh.

 

 

Can Christmas Songs Be Cool?

Can Christmas Songs Be Cool?

September 19, 2019

Every year around Christmas time, websites, news outlets and blogs pile on poor Christmas music, mocking the Christmas music that the writer considers the worst. The dynamic usually feels like a return to high school, where the songs are deemed inferior for the listed reasons, but really, they’re shunned because they’re not cool enough. Is Christmas music really that uncool? Or are there cool Christmas songs? If there are, what makes them cool? 

Tulane University professor Joel Dinerstein has made a study of cool, and he is my guest this week on “12 Songs.” In 2014, Dinerstein co-curated the “American Cool” photography and cultural history exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery of the Smithsonian, and he wrote three books on the subject, American Cool, Coach: A Study of New York Cool, and The Origins of Cool in Postwar America.

In our conversation, we talk about the Ray Conniff Singers, Louis Armstrong, Fats Waller, The Crystals, Dean Martin and more to discover that yes, some songs are cool, some are definitely uncool, and some become cool part way through. 

An Encore Presentation with Jimbo Mathus of the Squrrel Nut Zippers

An Encore Presentation with Jimbo Mathus of the Squrrel Nut Zippers

September 25, 2019

This is an encore presentation of Alex Rawls' interview with Jimbo Mathus of the Squirrel Nut Zippers. It first appeared late last March as an accidental loosey, and Mathus, the Squirrel Nut Zippers’ Christmas Caravan, and their conversation deserve more attention than they got at the time.

The band was at the height of its popularity in 1998 when it recorded Christmas Caravan at the request of their label. Even though no one in the band felt particularly excited by Christmas music, it made a memorable one that includes “Hanging Up My Stockings,” a song written by a band members’ parents. Mathus talks about the experience of recording that album, and recording a Christmas single, “Mardi Gras for Christmas,” in 2018 with the current, New Orleans-based Squirrel Nut Zippers lineup.

Paul McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmastime”

Paul McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmastime”

October 2, 2019

Paul McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmastime” is one of America’s least-loved Christmas songs if you read the annual lists of worst Christmas songs, but it’s also one of the most popular, so much so that Forbes reported in 2010 that it likely earned him between $400,000 and $600,000 annually. A sense of economic injustice likely fuels the outrage that writer Chris Chase expressed toward it and John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s “Happy Xmas (War is Over)” in 2010:

Them putting out this dreck is like if Irvin Berlin wrote The Thong Song. It’s like if Van Gogh had done macaroni art. I don’t care if the latest American Idol runner-up warbles his way through O, Holy Night, just don’t let me hear the great Paul McCartney butcher a song in the holiday season.

Andrew Winistorfer defended the song for Vice.com in 2012 in a piece that often reads like an overcorrection—he claims the song is “the original--and by far best--Chillwave song”—and Annie Zaleski wrote at Salon.com in 2016 that “‘Wonderful Christmastime’ represents one of McCartney's biggest post-Beatles pivot points — a low-pressure song where he reasserted his independence and started a metamorphosis that would linger for years. Sometimes, the most unexpected (and most polarizing) gestures end up being the most enduring.”

The song has proven to be very coverable, far more so than the biggest contemporary Christmas song, Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas is You,” and on this episode I talk to two artists who have recorded versions of the song. Electro boogie duo Tuxedo cut an on-brand version in 2014, and New Orleans rock band The Breton Sound cut a pop-punk version a year later. For this episode, Alex Rawls talked to Tuxedo’s Jake One and The Breton Sound’s Jonathan Pretus about the song, versions of it, and their other Christmas songs.

Tuxedo recently released its third album, Tuxedo III

Los Lobos’ Steve Berlin

Los Lobos’ Steve Berlin

October 10, 2019

Los Lobos have covered a lot of ground over the course of their more than four-decades-long career, but they had never recorded Christmas music. Earlier this month, they rectified that with the release of Llegó Navidad on Rhino Records. According to band member Steve Berlin, it was something that they had talked about and liked in concept but never got around to until Rhino approached them with the idea. In today’s episode, he tells the story of how the album moved from concept to completion, and what he learned about Christmas songs in Spanish-speaking countries in the process.

The conversation reveals as much if not more about Los Lobos as it does about Llegó Navidad. Berlin talks about how the band works in the studio, and how its place in the music world affects the decisions they make. The resulting album is typical of the band in that its integrity and dignity are as undeniable as its sense of fun. They’re adults, so Llegó Navidad is never silly, but they’re playful where they should be—“Feliz Navidad,” “Dondé Está Santa Claus”—and soulful when they need to be, as on “Christmas and You.” Because most of the songs come from the Spanish-speaking world, they’ll be fresh to a lot of American ears and arrive without the baggage that accompanies many versions of songs from the American Christmas canon.

The All-Christmas Radio Format

The All-Christmas Radio Format

October 16, 2019

In 2016, I wrote a piece for Nola.com on the all-Christmas radio format. Those who dislike Christmas music dump on it loudly, but it is quietly enjoyed by so many people that Christmas music is big business. It made stars of Pentatonix and draws audiences that make it lucrative for radio stations around the country to temporarily change formats and go to an all-Christmas music format.

While researching that piece, I got the impression that most stations dealt with the same limited playlists--often 200 to 250 canonical Christmas favorites. While talking to Steve Suter, program director for New Orleans' Magic 101.9--an Adult Contemporary station the rest of the year--I discovered that he deals with many of the same issues that other channels face, but he also makes choices that other stations don't because New Orleans and South Louisiana have produced a substantial body of Christmas music. He not only includes some of those songs in the station's all-Christmas playlist but features them prominently, even though they aren't as well-known as some of the best loved Christmas songs. 

Most of the songs included in this episode and the artists who recorded them are obvious from the conversation, but there is one exception. Suter talked about the challenge of choosing between versions of "Sleigh Ride," and I picked one that I like. Nothing in the conversation makes it clear that it's by She and Him." 

JD McPherson

JD McPherson

October 24, 2019

JD McPherson’s got a great backstory as a guy from small town Oklahoma who loved playing rock ’n’ roll so much that he finally started touring in his 30s. Fortunately, he’s good at it and has been able to sustain a career since. But that’s not why he’s on “The 12 Songs of Christmas.” In 2018, he recorded Socks!, which is perfect for people who want their Christmas music as schmaltz-free as possible. This week he talks to host Alex Rawls about he solved the problem of how to write Christmas songs with an approach that reveals a deep love of rock ’n’ roll history.

This week, Alex starts a new segment and talks about a song that ought to be part of the Christmas canon, Charlie Rich’s “Santa Claus’ Daughter.” The song went unreleased in 1965 when Rich recorded it, so its obscurity is understandable, but its playfulness is undeniable and Rich’s Elvis-like vocal makes the song sound familiar on first listen.

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An Encore Presentation with Thomas Lauderdale of Pink Martini

An Encore Presentation with Thomas Lauderdale of Pink Martini

October 30, 2019

This is an encore presentation of an episode from last spring with Thomas Lauderdale of Pink Martini. He was one of the first people I wanted for 12 Songs because when I first interviewed him in 2014, our conversation ended with a then-off-topic conversation on Christmas music. He had an appreciation of beautiful Christmas music that I liked but was only starting to work out a way to discuss. The pianist and bandleader for contemporary lounge band loves Christmas music, and when I interviewed him for the show last fall, he turned me on to a beautifully weightless version of "O Come All Ye Faithful" by Julie Andrews.

Unfortunately, that interview was lost to the technical difficulties that accompany working new gear into your recording set-up, but we were able to talk again last spring. This time, we talked more than before about the business of Christmas music, including the place their Joy to the World occupies in the band’s catalogue, and the role Starbucks played in getting the project off the ground.

As Lauderdale explained in a story on the band’s history that I wrote at MySpiltMilk.com, Pink Martini began playing predominantly Henry Mancini compositions. The band emerged at roughly the same time as the ’90s lounge revival, but it outlasted the other bands from that time because of his affection for the music itself and its more exotic manifestations. In October, Pink Martini released two new EPs,  Bésame Mucho and Tomorrow, with vocalists Edna Vazquez andi Jimmie Herrod respectively. 

Pink Martini will play a series of Holiday shows in California starting on December 1, including a 7-day, 9-show stand in San Francisco. Tickets are on sale now.