Just one look at the cover of this collection of Christmas themed songs by an eclectic mix of eighteen singer-songwriters gives a clue as to the content. This is Christmas deep in the heart of Americana-land: an isolated house stands alone with a forest backdrop, it’s night time and there’s no sign of snow – but there looks to be a storm brewing in the sky. And if the jolly tone of the opening track – Elliot Murphey’s Five Days of Christmas – at first misleads fear not, this is a song about gathering family and the mixed blessing that can be. Of course few blessings are more mixed than having your bi-polar cousin arrive for a stay only to inform you that he’s off his medication, and he keeps having thoughts about murdering his hospitable cousin – naturally it’s taxing on the temper but Murphey muses “still I tried to keep the spirit / close in my heart right near it / ‘cos Christmas comes but once a year”. For every such song which takes a comic view of the rituals of Christmas there’s another which has a more balanced reflection – even if these aren’t always happy memories. Kenny White’s Christmas Day reflects on the particular poignancy of a relationship breaking down during the holiday, over gentle guitar and mandolin. Jude Johnstone’s beautiful piano led contribution should have the discerning listener reaching for the gin bottle “I didn’t get a tree / it made no sense to me / ‘cos it just doesn’t feel like Christmas / But I still think of you / just like I always do.”
My Darling Clementine proffer the gift of a modern carol – it’s the tale of a birth, but not one involving a manger and a stable “this is not a song for Christmas / from that book with Cain and Abel / just a tale of everyday folk / and their miracle Mabel”. Bob Cheevers recounts a modern redemption story – it’s not quite what Dickens put into A Christmas Carol, but as Cheever’s has it “one thing we know each holiday season / some folks need a helping hand / daughter quit the pole for all the right reasons / boy got straight with a 12 step plan / woman I met got a good night’s sleep / the homeless man got back on his feet / Silent Night snow fallin’ down / spirit of Christmas all around”. Barry Ollman’s Winter’s Light glows with childhood recollections of snow filled Christmases, it’s an upbeat reflection on the warmth of nostalgia and seeing the passing of years as a positive – the excitement of life spilling out in front of you.
One thing Won’t Be Home For Christmas lacks is a turkey. Every song on this collection is filled with the real spirit of Christmas – compassion, regret, nostalgia, looking to the future and yes, the endless arguments as well. For every song mentioned above there are two more just as good on Won’t be home for Christmas. It’s maybe not the album you’ll be spinning as you decorate the tree – although the upbeat rockabilly of The Refugees is certainly suitable for that – but whenever the holiday gets to that thoughtful point, maybe after an eggnog or whisky-mac or two, then this’ll be an album to reach for.