Liner Note Author: Tom Pickles.
The most aggressively cheerful group to rise from the folk music boom of the late '50s/early '60s, the New Christy Minstrels were the sort of act destined to make a Christmas album -- they were always eager to embrace traditional show business tropes and they weren't afraid to play the sentimental card, and making a holiday album is just what sentimental show biz types do. Actually, during the 1960s the New Christy Minstrels made two Christmas albums, which have been paired up on this release from Real Gone Music, and a spin of the disc tells us a lot about the group and the shifts in the world of commercial folk music in the '60s. The 12 cuts from 1963's Merry Christmas! were recorded when the NCM were at their commercial peak, and the performances typify their approach of the time: tight massed harmonies, a small army of guitarists and banjo players, and an air of good cheer even when the group was at its most earnest. The biggest surprise is that the album shies away from familiar Christmas tunes in favor of original material, most of it written by group founder Randy Sparks and sounding more contemplative than one might expect. By 1966, the folk boom was over, Sparks had sold the rights to the group, and Christmas with the Christies reflected their new status as a polished pop vocal ensemble, capable of turning out slick easy listening versions of current hits (or, in this case, well-remembered songs of the season), with only the occasional banjo as a reminder of their days as accessible folkies. (And while the name didn't change, the minstrels had; the Christies always had a high turnover, and not a single person appears on both Merry Christmas! and Christmas with the Christies.) The approach of these two albums is different enough to make the transition a bit jarring at the midway point, but in both forms the NCM were thoroughly professional, and if these performances prize skill over inspiration, the singers are never less than expert and the harmonies and vocal arrangements are truly impressive. For this package, Real Gone has included five bonus tracks (two from out of print compilations, the others session outtakes), as well as detailed liner notes by Tom Pickles. If you're a fan of vintage Christmas sounds and/or artifacts of the pre-singer/songwriter folk era, this New Christy Minstrels release serves its purpose as well as anyone could hope. ~ Mark Deming