Williamson Branch are not newcomers to the bluegrass world. The five-piece family group has amassed an ever-growing reputation as one of the most well-rounded acts in this style that you will ever hear and their new collection Very Merry Christmas. The fourteen songs slated for inclusion on the album range from traditional Christmas material played straight, radical reworkings of those same sorts of songs, originals, acapella tracks, and even an instrumental. It is the latest in a string of releases for renowned bluegrass label Pinecastle Records and arguably Williamson Branch’s finest moment yet.
I know it sounds like a bold statement for a Christmas release. The group, however, didn’t toss this off without a thought and you can hear it in album opener “Very Merry Christmas”. It has a blast of inspiration guaranteed to get virtually any listener moving. Williamson Branch brings the full weight of their instrumental skills onto this track without ever losing the core spirit of the song. “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” is a classic of the Christmas season by any measure, but the group spins it in an idiosyncratic fashion with its mix of tempos and its surprising intensity. The melancholy strand running through the song’s tapestry helps it stand out.
“Be Born in Me” is an album original clearly illustrating how steeped in Christian tradition the group’s music is without ever sounding heavy-handed. It comes off like sparkling poetry in musical form, never too previous or ornate, and the arrangement allows the vocals ample room to breathe. Balance is one the strong suits of this collection and “Be Born in Me” is a prime example. The group’s merger of “Christmas Times A-Comin’/White Christmas” isn’t anything like versions you heard during childhood and that’s a good thing. They push listeners into thinking about these classics in a different way and impose their identity on the song without ever betraying its initial impulse.
I wasn’t prepared for “Children, Go Where I Send Thee”. I expected a full band to enter the song any second, but the moment never arrived. Williamson Branch, instead, unveils their vocal masterpiece with an acapella rendition of the song that will never bore you despite the absolute dearth of musical instruments. Some of the album’s songs have a light theatrical bent that reminds me of old time country tunes such as the album’s tenth cut “Momma’s Christmas List”. They avoid maudlin sentimentality, however, and instead reach a measure of simple pathos that I enjoyed without any embarrassment.
“There’s a New Kid in Town” is another song that could spectacularly fail but, instead, succeeds in staking a claim as something unique. That’s not easy to say in this style of music. The songwriting is where Williamson Branch finds new ground as they successfully rewrite the birth of Jesus without making my eyes roll. Instead, I listened impressed with the writing’s ability to reinvent such a familiar tale. Christmas is why we are here, but reinvention is the order of the day, and Williamson Branch’s Very Merry Christmas fully satisfies on both accounts.