A few years ago, country super-group Diamond Rio released a greatest hits album. As a bonus track, they included the patriotic “In God We Still Trust.” Naturally, it wasn’t a favorite with many critics, but it quickly became a fan favorite. It was my introduction to the group, not having heard of them before then (this was before I really knew much about specific musical artists at all, just what I happened to hear and like). Since then, I’ve discovered just how talented these guys are. They’re not only good guys, but they’re exceptionally good at what they do. I can’t help enjoying their music. I imagine many if not most of my readers are already familiar with them, but if for some reason you aren’t… I highly recommend them. And I think this Christmas album would be the perfect introduction, since it gives you an excellent sense of their style with songs that are already familiar to everyone.
The Star On Top: “Christmas is Coming [Instrumental]” — This is the only instrumental track on the album, yet so brilliant it stands head and shoulders above everything else. It takes the Vince Guaraldi classic and completely reworks it as a combined jazz/country jam session. Every instrument sparkles, but at the center of it, the piano holds the listener enraptured. A must-hear.
“The Star Still Shines” — This song is classic, and Diamond Rio’s warm, rich harmonies are the perfect match for it. It can be done slowly or quickly. This version is upbeat, showcasing some really nimble piano work. If you play, you’ll probably try to play this after hearing it. Superb mandolin backup too.
“Winter Wonderland” — Lead singer Marty Roe said they were aiming for a slight 60s/70s pop feel with this arrangement. The rhythm departs from the traditional for a fresh twist. It’s got a faint Beatles sound in the guitar and harmonies, but it winds up firmly in the realm of country. Good different.
“Sleigh Ride” — This album is full of bluegrass overtones, and they come through particularly well on this infectious cover. Get ready for some merry electric guitar, banjo and mandolin pickin’… if you can keep up.
“Hark the Herald Angels Sing” — You don’t hear much country acapella, but Diamond Rio does it with class and style. Their tenor singer has an uncannily pure sound, and all the voices blend in a way that would melt the coldest Scrooge. Never content to leave the familiar un-tweaked in a good way, they throw in some gorgeous surprise chords on this one.
“Have Yourself a Merry Christmas” — This chestnut is usually done slowly and jazzily. Once again, Diamond Rio surprises with something a bit different from the ordinary. Instead of lazily lounging back, their version of this carol grooves along at a nice mid-tempo pace. It made me enjoy the song in a whole new way, which is exactly what a good, creative cover of any song is supposed to do. There’s an unexpectedly lovely vocal breakdown toward the end.
Stocking Stuffer: “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” isn’t the first song I would think of when I think “country Christmas,” but Diamond Rio turns in a very interesting cover of it. It starts out completely acapella, with some faint, echoed “O come, O come” in the background. Then the instrumentation kicks in immediately with strings and guitar, coordinating in a way that feels oddly discordant for the first few bars before things settle into a strong country rock groove. Granted, Diamond Rio’s cheerful voices feel a bit strained as they attempt to imbue this song with solemnity and weight (the bass is greatly appreciated on this particular track), but this is worth a listen.
Stale Cookies: “The Christmas Song” and “Christmas Time is Here,” but only because neither of those songs has ever been a huge favorite. Diamond Rio performs both beautifully.
Coal in the Bottom: There’s no single track that merits this label.
In my opinion, it’s exceedingly difficult for anyone with a taste for Christmas music, country music, or music in general to dislike this album, because this album is good country music, Christmas music, and music in general. Even if you weren’t a fan of country voices, you’d still have to admit that there’s some amazing musicianship here.
And with that, I close out this year’s installment of my Christmas favorites. Come back next Christmas for more. Although I didn’t end up fitting in a lot this time, I did showcase some of the albums that are at the very top of my list, and this is one of them.