Reviewed by Johan Palme on 29th December, 2016
As long as there have been Christmas records, there have been solo instrumental Christmas records. And for the most part, they’ve been considered slightly suspect, critics scoffing at faux church bells or overwrought piano virtuosity. And with streaming sites now the biggest source of revenue for record companies, new “soft piano Christmas” releases (or whatever) are hardly seen as any better.
In fact, there’s only really been one, brief, glimpse of a period when Christmas records by solo musicians were considered credible. In 1966, respected jazz acounstic guitarist Charlie Byrd released the well-played but slightly dull Chirstmas Carols for Solo Guitar. A couple of years later, American primitive gutarist blues John Fahey released The New Possibility, as critically-acclaimed as it was drenched in echo. Discounting some organ-based Jazz, no other Christmas instrumental albums have been as talked about. Their pioneering use of the vibrantly naked, emotionally raw, unaccompanied acoustic guitar was considered a welcome and conplete departure from all preceding Christmas music.
Except, that is, from Chet Atkins. On the B-side of Christmas with Chet Atkins, his excellent 1961 Christmas album, there are three acoustic solo tracks, every bit as raw as Fahey or Byrd, and more pure and minimalist than either. For those who know Chet Atkins later career as a guitar virtuoso, this may seem unsurprising – but for 1961, it was amazingly radical. Pioneering some truly influential techniques, they’re completely different from what he was doing at the time, which was essentially inventing highly polished Nashville pop-country.
And, in fact, they’re in just as abject contrast to the rest of the album, which consists of well-played, well-sung, Bill Porter-engineered easy listening pop. Chet Atkins seems just as home in either, and in the meeting between them. And somehow, somewhere there, the critic’s urge to distinguish true from cheesy rings awfully empty.