Jolly jingles

Four local artists. Four Christmas carols with an Austin spin.

Holidays just wouldn’t be complete without music. We invited Austin acts Jackie Venson, Jeff Lofton and Folk Uke — plus a ringer from Dallas, the Old 97’s — to the Austin360 studio to share a few favorites from the season with us in the form of music videos. Here’s a bit about each performer and the song they chose, followed by stories and videos from four acts recorded in 2015.

Old 97’s, “A Holly Jolly Christmas”

Old 97’s adapted their version of “A Holly Jolly Christmas” to our stripped-down studio space. From left: Philip Peeples, Murry Hammond, Rhett Miller and Ken Bethea. Photo by Deborah Cannon

Old 97’s adapted their version of “A Holly Jolly Christmas” to our stripped-down studio space. From left: Philip Peeples, Murry Hammond, Rhett Miller and Ken Bethea. 
Photo by Deborah Cannon

Not all Christmas songs are buoyant and bright: For every “Joy to the World” and “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” there’s a quiet, reflective number such as “Away in a Manger” and “Silent Night.” But given how much fun his long-running Dallas alt-country band has always had onstage, there was little doubt which way they would go when choosing a song for our video series.

In fact, it was a pretty easy call, as they’d recorded “A Holly Jolly Christmas” for a compilation of holiday songs by Dallas bands back in the late 1990s. That was long enough ago to make relearning the song a bit of a challenge, though, and the stripped-down nature of our studio setup required a different approach from the electric guitar flourishes and horn-section blasts on their previous version.

Lead guitarist Ken Bethea, who switched to acoustic guitar this time around,appreciated the challenge in getting out of the band’s comfort zone. “The best thing we have going within the band is that it’s always been the four of us,” he said. “The worst thing is stagnation; always been the same. So it was kind of fun to be pushed into a corner and paint our way out.”

Bethea and drummer Philip Peeples (playing tambourine in our video) stil llive in Dallas, while bassist Murry Hammond and singer-guitarist Rhett Miller have moved to California and New York, respectively. They rarely see each other over the holidays now as a result, but Bethea remembers a Christmas party at Miller’s house many moons ago when all the guests took part in a random secret-Santa exchange.

Bethea brought a hard-to-find CD by Sleepy Heroes, a power-pop trio that featured a young Miller and Hammond. Much hilarity ensued when Miller ended upon the receiving end. — P.B.

Jackie Venson, “Angels We Have Heard on High” and “Hark the Herald Angels Sing”

Jackie Venson plays and sings a medley of “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” and “Angels We Have Heard on High” in our holiday music video series. Photo by Kelly West

Jackie Venson plays and sings a medley of “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” and “Angels We Have Heard on High” in our holiday music video series. Photo by Kelly West

Electric blues artist Jackie Venson couldn’t decide which song to perform for us, so she created a medley, mixing a pair of her favorite Christmas carols.

“These two songs have always been special to me, but I mainly love how beautiful the melodies are,” the 27-year-old said. “They truly stand out.”

In her stripped-down studio performance, Venson accompanies herself on electric guitar, but she doesn’t indulge in the epic six-string meditations that generally mark her live shows. Instead, she caresses the melodies with her voice, brilliantly scaling the triumphant chorus of “Gloria,” her face shining with sheer joy and love.

The daughter of accomplished Austin musician Andrew Venson, Jackie was born into Austin music, and she’s emerged as a force to be reckoned with, carrying forward the torch for our legendary blues scene. In the past two years she’s been making a name for herself well beyond our city limits. In addition to maintaining an active touring schedule, she made her late-night television debut this year, sitting in with Jon Batiste’s band on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” for several nights in September.

She returns to NYC for a pair of shows in early December, which she will live stream on her website, jackievenson.com, and she plays the Armadillo Christmas Bazaar on Dec. 22.

Other than music and fellowship, the biggest thing Venson looks forward to during the holidays is her mom’s potato cheese casserole. “We are only allowed to eat this two times a year, and it’s Thanksgiving and Christmas,” she says.“The whole family goes gaga over it. It’s basically cheese, butter and potatoes mixed in with mama’s secret ingredient, a mystery that will be passed down to the next one responsible for cooking the casserole. It’s a beautiful thing.” —D.S.S.

Folk Uke, “All I Want for Christmas”

Folk Uke, with friend Randy Weeks, in the Austin360 studio for our holiday music series. Cathy Guthrie, middle, and Amy Nelson performed their tune, “All I Want For Christmas,” with Weeks sitting in on hollow body electric. Photo by Kelly West

Folk Uke, with friend Randy Weeks, in the Austin360 studio for our holiday music series. Cathy Guthrie, middle, and Amy Nelson performed their tune, “All I Want For Christmas,” with Weeks sitting in on hollow body electric. 
Photo by Kelly West

Some of the songs on Folk Uke’s new EP released earlier this year are, well, not fit for a family newspaper. But lo and behold, there’s a holiday song, and it needs no bleeps on the radio! The closest they come to their customary cursing is that line about the two-timing Santa: “I saw you with your ho, ho,ho/ Underneath the mistletoe.”

Like most of the songs that Amy Nelson and Cathy Guthrie write, the humorous lyrics that lace the melody serve as a sharp-edged counterpoint to the natural sweetness of their vocal blend. It’s kind of a family trait, for both of them: Nelson’s dad is a guy named Willie, and Guthrie’s pop is a fellow named Arlo. Perhaps you’ve heard of them.

Nelson and Guthrie hope fans will allow them to stand on their own merits with Folk Uke, though they understand that their parents are a point of interest. Plus, it’s another opportunity for humor.

“I think we’ve influenced our dads’ music in a lot of ways,” Nelson says.There’s about a three-second pause before both of them break up into hysterical giggles.

“You were totally straight-faced when you said it,” Guthrie congratulates her friend and bandmate.

Their holiday song is a sad one, though it’s probably something that many listeners will find relatable. “All I want for Christmas” sounds hopeful, until you hear the rest of the line: “… is you to leave.”

“It’s pretty much an ‘I need my space’ song that borrows from the worst experiences over the entirety of my dating and married life,” says Nelson, who wrote it. “All of it is true except for the mistletoe.”

The band name comes from Nelson and Guthrie bonding over ukulele, though Nelson now plays acoustic guitar. Often their friend Randy Weeks accompanies them on a hollow-body electric, including in our holiday video.

They hope this Christmas season goes more smoothly than a recent Easter Sunday show they played in Aspen. “Just tell one Jesus joke on Easter and it’s over,” Nelson laments, and they both laugh at the memory. The joke? “If your resurrection lasts for more than four hours, call your doctor.” — P.B.

Jeff Lofton, “Silent Night”

Keyboard player Ross Margitza, left, and Jeff Lofton performed “Silent Night” in the Austin360 studio for our holiday music series. Photo by Kelly West

Keyboard player Ross Margitza, left, and Jeff Lofton performed “Silent Night” in the Austin360 studio for our holiday music series. 
Photo by Kelly West

Trumpeter Jeff Lofton logs a lot of gigs over the holidays. “Jazz sets a great mood for a party, and I have a holiday set list for those events,” he says.

Lofton chose “Silent Night” for this series because it’s one of his favorite Christmas songs and it works well for trumpet and piano; he’s accompanied by keyboardist Ross Margitza in our video. He embellishes the Christmas classic with ornamental flourishes and swooping phrases that glide into and out of the main melody.

A stalwart of Austin’s jazz scene, respected for his artistic integrity and his thoughtful interpretations of standards, Lofton has a knack for drawing in audiences. But he says the familiarity of Christmas music resonates with audiences in a different way. “Sometimes they will sing along,” he says.

Need more jazzy Christmas tunes? Lofton just released a cover of “A Christmas Song” available as a single on CDbaby.com, and he’ll play a residency gig at the Lobby Lounge at the Four Seasons every Wednesday from 8 to 11 p.m.

2015 Seasonal Serenades

Photos by Kelly West
Published Dec. 16, 2015

From Sweet Spirit’s new original song written just for this occasion, to the Xmas Men’s swing-jazz instrumental refashioning of yuletide classics, to Tish Hinojosa’s Tex-Mex tale of Christmas across cultures, to the marching-zombie craziness of the Dead Music Capital Band, our video series has something for just about everyone.

Sweet Spirit, ‘Christmastime Is Over’

“I feel like 80 percent of Christmas music sucks,” says guitarist Andrew Cashen. “There’s really good stuff out there and it’s awesome, like Bing Crosby, but I feel like it’s just recycled over and over and over.”

Consequently, when we asked Sweet Spirit to drop by our office and perform a Christmas song, they decided to write their own. Cashen had been nurturing a riff that “sounded kind of Christmas-y,” so he recorded it on his phone and sent it to vocalist Sabrina Ellis.

After a drunken meditation that may or may not have involved an elf, a fairy, a puff of green smoke and a magic jingle bell, Ellis wrote the lyrics based on the O. Henry story “The Gift of the Magi.” She says it’s cool because of O. Henry’s ties to Austin and Texas.

In the story, recounted and embellished with jingle bells, horns and chimes in Sweet Spirit’s song, a young couple struggles to buy Christmas gifts for each other because they have no money. She sells her hair to buy a chain for his watch, only to discover he’s sold the watch to buy a mirror and a comb for her hair.

“What they find is that what they don’t have is money, but what they do have is each other,” Ellis says.

— Deborah Sengupta Stith

Xmas Men, ‘Jingle Bells’/’Up on the Housetop’ (medley)

The Xmas Men’s first lesson learned in playing Christmas music: Upbeat swing and snazzy suits beat sentimental carols and black turtlenecks.

“We’re Robert Earl Keen’s band, and Robert does a Christmas show every year that we take out on the road,” says guitarist Rich Brotherton, who teams with bassist Bill Whitbeck, drummer Tom Van Schaik and steel guitarist Marty Muse in the Xmas Men.

“He asked us to play some Christmas tunes to open it a few years ago, and we tried coming out in black shirts and playing ‘What Child Is This’ and ‘Away in a Manger.’ And everybody just kept talking.”

They jazzed it up the following year both musically and sartorially, taking the stage in matching white duds. “We played some kind of swing-tune stuff, and that worked good,” Brotherton recalls. “We took some time to try to turn them into a little something that still feels fun and recognizable, but it’s not just what you hear all the time.”

The new approach went over well enough that the four musicians decided to record an album. Dubbing themselves the Xmas Men, they released “Santa Is Real” last year. They’ll have the discs for sale at ACL Live when they play their annual Christmas show with Keen on Dec. 20.

— Peter Blackstock

Tish Hinojosa, ‘From Texas to a Christmas Night’

It may not be a winter wonderland, but Christmastime in Texas still evokes fond holiday memories for native Texan and singer-songwriter Tish Hinojosa. As the youngest of 13 siblings, she remembers her family making tamales on warm but festive days in San Antonio.

Throughout her musical career, which spans more than 20 years, Hinojosa recorded a couple of bilingual Christmas albums including “From Texas to a Christmas Night.” The music highlights the uniquely bicultural holiday season that many Texans celebrate.

She didn’t always have a Tex-Mex Christmas, though. In 2005, Hinojosa moved to Germany, where she lived for nearly a decade before recently returning to the Lone Star State. Now, the veteran singer-songwriter has immersed herself back into Austin’s live music scene.

— Nancy Flores

Dead Music Capital Band, ‘Here Comes Krampus’

“Everyone loves the holidays; loving the holidays doesn’t stop in the afterlife,” says Chris McMillan, bass drummer and leader of the Dead Music Capital Band, a robust zombie marching band with more than a dozen players.

According to the group’s self-spun mythology, the DMC Band has been “traveling for centuries with circuses” but was “abandoned in Austin” in 2011. In 2013, feeling “homesick for the old country,” group members decided to celebrate the patron saint of bad Christmas, Krampus.

“Krampus is the Christmas demon in the Alps, in Europe,” McMillan says. According to Alpine folklore, Old St. Nicolas handles the good boys and girls, and Krampus takes care of the bad kids. Though he resembles the devil, Krampus is actually St. Nick’s helper who doles out more than lumps of coal, McMillan says. “If you’ve been kind of out of line, you might get swatted with a switch,” he says, “and if you’ve been really bad you get thrown in the sack and eaten for Christmas dinner.”

In 2013, the band released a collection of Christmas “Scarols,” darkly reimagined classics like “Jingle Hell” and “Rudolph the Dead-Nosed Reindeer,” and began hosting an annual “Krampusnacht” celebration to welcome Krampus to Austin. (This year’s event, a parade and mini-fest on the shores of Lady Bird Lake, took place in early December.)

“I think that when people hear us play our Christmas ‘Scarols,’ they are really excited to hear something that’s familiar, as holiday music, but played in a different way,” McMillan says.

“Here Comes Krampus” is a cautionary tale. “‘Here comes Santa Claus,’ you can take it that way, too,” McMillan says, “but really, ‘Here Comes Krampus,’ be on your best behavior, because nobody likes to get swatted with a switch.”

— D.S.S.

Listen to the playlist

Can't get enough of these local artists' distinctly Austin, distinctly weird spins on holiday tunes? Listen to the songs in full below.