Published in Bluegrass Unlimited, April 1994. Used with permission.

Blue Ridge Christmas Music

Heritage HRC-C-1002

Away In A Manger/Christmas Time's A-Coming/Beautiful Star of Bethlehem/It Came Upon A Midnight Clear/Christmas Time Back Home / God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen/Silent Night/O Come All Ye Faithful / Jingle Bells/The First Noel/Hark The Herald Angels Sing/Joy To The World

There's a real challenge in undertaking a project like Blue Ridge Christmas Music. It's essential to select material that translates well to the instrumentation and rhythms of bluegrass music. Steve Kilby and friends have succeeded admirably with this effort. This is not a novelty recording. There are no jokes here. This is a straight-up, all-instrumental interpretation of twelve Christmas songs, mostly traditional carols that we've heard since we were children. Only three songs are really part of the standard bluegrass repertoire – Christmas Time's A-Coming, Christmas Time Back Home and Beautiful Star Of Bethlehem. Kilby handles the guitar work, as well as the recording and mixing duties, joined by Billy C. Hurt, Jr. on fiddle, Randy Greer on mandolin, Teddy Francisco on banjo, Donnie Scott on Dobro and Bill Williams on bass.

This isn't a recording of superpickers showing off hot licks to amaze the world with their instrumental prowess. The breaks are short and true to the melody. The arrangements feature a nice interplay between the lead instruments, with plenty of drive in the up-tempo pieces and emotion in the slower songs. I'm a sucker for good cross-picking and Kilby's is lovely, especially in Beautiful Star Of Bethlehem, with its instrumental version of the call-and-response chorus by the Dobro and mandolin that echoes Ralph Stanley's haunting version. Silent Night is marvelous, coming off a bit more up-tempo than we're used to hearing it. Scott's work on Dobro is outstanding throughout, as is Greer's clean mandolin style.

You don't necessarily expect the banjo to pull off the melody of non-bluegrass tunes, but Francisco does an excellent job of playing with imagination and drive, without taking too many liberties. It just goes to show that a good choice of material and a bit of taste go a long way. O Come All Ye Faithful and Jingle Bells demonstrate how nicely the banjo can fit in. The only real downside to this recording is that the mix is uneven in spots, with fiddle and Dobro breaks frequently getting lost.

All in all, this recording is a winner. Christmas music should bring back old memories and Blue Ridge Christmas Music does a great job of that. Kilby and the rest are to be complimented for a job well done. It's in the regular holiday rotation in my house.

Heritage Records, Rt. 3, Box 290, Galax, VA 24333

Archie Warnock, [email]

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