The (Annotated) WALTER Holiday Playlist

Evergreen songs come from far and wide—but from right here, too. Artists from in and around the Triangle have contributed a solid number of songs to the holiday canon. Consider this selection from music critic David Menconi.

Joe Newberry
“On This Christmas Day” (2005)

Raleigh folk/bluegrass musician Joe Newberry gets a lot of requests this time of year for “On This Christmas Day,” which contrasts cold weather with the season’s warm feelings. Recordings of it have appeared on a number of albums over the years, including Laurelyn Dossett’s holiday song cycle “The Gathering.”

“I wrote it in Cambridge, Mass.,” Newberry says. “Holiday time, snow all over, and a phrase came to mind: ‘Snow falls ’round the manger and love melts it away.’ A minute later came, ‘Greet the host of angels on this Christmas day. Once I had that, the rest of it spilled out between soundcheck and showtime.  I sent the lyrics to my late sister, a pastor, and she had one tweak – that the wise men were still on their way, so ‘travel’ and ‘unravel’ needed to be in the present tense.”

Squirrel Nut Zippers
“Sleigh Ride” (1998)

Chapel Hill hot-jazz hitmakers take this seasonal chestnut of an instrumental for a spin and make it sound like something you might have heard in a New Orleans speakeasy during Prohibition.

Terry Anderson & the O.A.K. Team
“Santa Had a Wreck” (2006)

Veteran Raleigh roots-rocker recounts a Christmas Eve when Santa’s gift-giving rounds were interrupted by a mishap on the roof (“I ain’t lyin’, them toys went flyin’”). The only place this was ever released was on Volume One of the hard-to-find “Have a Holly Raleigh Christmas” compilation series.

“Growing up, I loved a lot of Christmas albums,” says “Holly Raleigh Christmas” producer Jeff Carroll. “Beach Boys, Buck Owens, Phil Spector. But what I loved most of all was the music to the Claymation Christmas specials like ‘Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.’ Later, I learned I even had a distant relative who worked on the music for that stuff. It’s in the family.”

Shirley Caesar
“Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” (1998)

A bonafide gospel legend, Caesar is head pastor at Mt. Calvary Word of Faith Church in Raleigh. Her voice and devotional songs of the season go together like Christmas trees and tinsel.

Tift Merritt
“I’ll Be Home For Christmas” (2003)

The Grammy-nominated Americana singer’s take on the World War II-vintage Bing Crosby classic is a highlight of the Special Olympics benefit album “A Very Special Acoustic Christmas.” Her rendition is very subdued, by design. 

“Christmas music can be so hokey and superficial, and really glaze over the grittier kind of strength and love home is really all about,” says Merritt, who lives in Raleigh. “But we found an old gospel version of ‘I’ll Be Home for Christmas’ that seemed to speak to that. The producer, Peter Collins, was so kind and patient. He kept saying, ‘Let’s go a little lower,’ pushing my vocal down into a register where it’s really quiet and down-low, moreso than normal for me. I’m proud of how it came out.”

Blind Boys of Alabama
“Away in a Manger” (2003)

For much of his life up until his death in 2005, Blind Boys of Alabama co-founder George Scott lived in Durham. He sang lead on this version of the 19th century hymn, accompanied by Kannapolis native George Clinton.

The Rosebuds
“I Hear (Click, Click, Click)” (2012)

The Raleigh indie-rock duo of Ivan Howard and Kelly Crisp made a killer holiday album, “Christmas Tree Island.” It’s the rare Christmas album with all-original, and the guitar-chiming “I Hear (Click, Click, Click)” is track number one.

“Growing up, Christmas music was something you didn’t even realize you were absorbing because it’s just around so much,” says Crisp, who lives in Brooklyn nowadays. “The Christmas songs I loved most were the ones that rocked, like ‘Jingle Bell Rock,’ and Christmas music is so bubbly – you can use as many bells as you want and get away with it. My favorite song on ‘Christmas Tree Island’ is ‘I Hear (Click, Click, Click)’ because it’s like an early Beatles pop song. And it has vocals from Ivan’s mom and aunt, too.” 

Nnenna Freelon & John Brown Big Band
“Baby, It’s Cold Outside” (2012)

On which the Grammy-nominated jazz singer from Durham and bandleader Brown engage in some playful banter. It’s a highlight of their album “Christmas.”

Southern Culture on the Skids
“Merry Christmas Baby” (1995)

The Charles Brown r&b classic never had it so good as on this version by Chapel Hill’s kings of trailer-park roots rock, Southern Culture on the Skids. It’s from the Geffen Records compilation “Just Say Noel.”

James Taylor
“Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” (2006)

Chapel Hill expatriate Taylor gets in touch with the melancholy side of the season with this holiday standard, which dates back to the 1944 Judy Garland musical “Meet Me in St. Louis.” This appeared on his album “James Taylor at Christmas.”