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The Making of My First Christmas Album, "The Christmas Heart"

Updated: Sep 18, 2022

© 2022 Grant Maloy Smith • All Rights Reserved

Press: free to reprint any content from my website and blog with attribution

When a record label asked me to create a Christmas album, I was intrigued but a little doubtful. Would anyone want to hear an American Roots artist sing Christmas songs? What could I bring to them that we haven't already heard a million times? I was also working on my next AMERICAN STORIES series album, which will be about the Mississippi River, so I was worried it would take too much time away from that.

But they wanted me to do traditional Christmas songs, so I wouldn't have to write anything. All I'd have to do is make my own arrangements. Easy, right?

Well, yes and no. Arranging is certainly easier than writing and arranging. But at the same time I didn't want to do the songs in the same old way that everyone has heard already, so the arrangements were going to have to be really good. And different.

Well, I thought about it for a week, then I told the label YES, I would do it. And the work began. The first thing was song selection, which I jumped right in on. The label wanted me to focus on traditional songs that were in the public domain. That makes it easier in terms of not having to get clearances for songs that someone still owns. So I started building a list that included these songs:

  • The First Noel, 1833

  • Gesu Bambino (Oh Come Let Us Adore Him),1917

  • Go Tell It on the Mountain, 1865

  • I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day, 1872

  • I Saw Three Ships, 1833

  • In the Bleak Midwinter

  • O Come, O Come, Emanuel

  • What Child is This?, 1865

  • While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks, 1728

  • Silent Night, 1818

  • Away In A Manger, 1882

This isn't the final list that made the album, but it was where I started. When I really looked into each song, I discovered quickly that many of them had too many verses. Who wants to hear 6 or 8 verses of the same melody, over and over? They are old songs, so of course they are not formatted the way that today's songs are. Most of them did not have a chorus like we have today, and none of them had a bridge. A bridge is a relatively recent invention: it's a part of the song that you normally hear only once, normally about 2/3 of the way through. It's different melodically and musically from the rest of the song. It's used to create interest and break up the repetition of verse/chorus/verse/chorus.

So I dug in. I have to say that it was rough at the beginning. The first one I tried was a failure - I just didn't like how it was coming out. I had painted myself into a corner trying to apply my "style" like a decal to these songs. I reconsidered my approach and started again.

Random pictures of my studio. You can step through them.

The breakthrough came when I made my own version of "I Heard The Bells On Christmas Day." I finally accepted that I could do these songs however I wanted. I could rewrite them. I could pull them apart and put them back together again, and that's exactly what I did with this song. The first verse is pretty recognizable. But in the original song there's another verse. Then another. Then another. By today's standards it's too monotonous. We don't format songs like that anymore.

So I wrote a chorus that is just a pretty rendition of "Peace On Earth," which are lyrics from Longfellow's original poem from 1874. I made up my own music and melody. I followed that up with an original bridge which is very dramatic. Then I went back to another verse and chorus. Basically it was an updating of a very old song style into a modern one. I liked Longfellow's words, but I twisted a few of them to fit the new format. I didn't think he would mind. I honored what he had written. It was liberating.

I laid in some "fake" violin and cello, but I knew that I wanted Matt Combs to play these instruments on the final recording. Matt is an astonishing talent. He played all the fiddle on my last album, APPALACHIA: AMERICAN STORIES, and he was simply brilliant. He can play anything with strings, and at the highest levels in the music business. He made some time for me, and he recorded violin and cello on this song and several others on the album.

Matt was the opening fiddle on The Grand Ole Opry. But he's classically trained and can play anything from Haydn to a hoe-down, like no one else.

The incredible Matt Combs

Having that success was such a relief, and finally I felt like I could do a whole album. The gloves were off: I could do whatever I wanted. I didn't have to stick to the original song, nor did I have to be my usual self as an artist. I could take lyrics from other verses and put them together in the way that I wanted. I could make them my own, while still honoring the original, wonderful works.

"Go Tell It On The Mountain" was next. I always felt that doing this song in a jamboree/tent revival tempo was fine, but it necessarily makes the lyrics less thoughtful. In a way, the hand-clapping tempo works against the lyrics. So I wanted to make this a soulful number, in a Gospel style. After creating my piano part I added a Gospel type B3 part. I liked it so much that I shot a little video of a playback to send to Jeff Silverman, who would eventually be mixing the album. I wanted it to start slow and thoughtfully, and then pick up the pace, with some Gospel backing vocals in the background. I had worked with singers Kim Fleming and Kim Mont in 2021 when they sang on my Gospel Song "I Found Faith" on my album APPALACHIA: AMERICAN STORIES. So I contacted them and arranged a date when I could record them in Nashville. That ended up being July 5, as it turned out.

Short playback of my piano and B3 for "Go Tell It On The Mountain"

When I got the idea to do "Silent Night" as a Jazz number, that's when my brain really broke a bit. I am not a Jazz guy. My songs aren't based on three chords, either, but they're nowhere near as complex in terms of chord structure as Jazz normally is. I spent the better part of two weeks refreshing my memory and studying Jazz progressions, figuring out how I could reharmonize this song in a way that the melody could remain the same even though the music underneath was completely different. I built a piano part up step by step. The result was a piano part that I probably couldn't really play "live" exactly like it is on the album, but that's OK. I was acting as the arranger, not the performer in that sense. I left a section after the first verse for a sax solo.

I was planning on asking Thomas Hutchings to play that for me, and to weave his sax through the rest of the song, too. Thomas is a wonderful person and extremely talented player in the New York Jazz scene. He had been a big part of the Carnegie Hall concert that I had co-produced with Eileen Sherman back in April of this year. We played together on several songs that night, after rehearsing in Manhattan for several days leading up to the show. He's great, and I knew he'd be great at this song. I was not disappointed. He gave me two complete parts that I comped together in the final recording to create what you hear on the record.

The great Thomas Hutchings

Next came "Joy To The World," which also started slowly and then kicked into high gear. I put down a good track and arranged some call-and-answer backing vocals as a guide for Kim and Kim to sing.

By this time I was ready to go back into Jazz land, and I tackled "In The Bleak Midwinter." This time it was easier, and I built the piano guide up as I had done with "Silent Night." This was all being done in my own studio, where I can track just about anything with up to 6 people. After that I am out of room and microphones, but I didn't need to bring in that many people at once. In this song I had already asked Thomas Hutchings to do his saxophone magic, but then I realized that I also should have asked Jazz guitarist Noshir Mody to play on it. So I extended the song to reprise the introduction after the sax solo, and then made a space for Noshir to solo. The second half of the song would have both Thomas and Noshir trading lines back and forth.

Noshir Mody

At the end of 2021 I did a holiday show at Lincoln Center, and I wrote several Christmas songs for that show. One of them was very specific to New York City, but the other one was for everyone. Called "On This Day," it reaches out to the millions of people who feel especially lonely during the holidays. If you don't have a family that you're close to, or any friends to spend this time of year with, it can be really brutal. People even commit suicide, which is heart-breaking. This song reaches out to them.

The grand finale at Lincoln Center, December 2021

I had already recorded "On This Day" in Texas with Grammy® winning producer Chuck Ebert. He assembled a great group of studio musicians and they cut the song at his studio just outside of Fort Worth. I had done a vocal, but I decided to re-do it in my own studio, so I did that and also put down my own acoustic and electric guitars.

Chuck Ebert, 8 time Grammy nominee, and Grammy® winner

I had played a show that Chuck produced in Fredericksburg, in the Texas Hill Country, back in March. He picked me up at Dallas Fort Worth airport and we spent a great week together in rehearsals and the show, laughing and drinking good wine. We've been developing a show centered on roots music called "Rooted in Song," so this was the perfect extension of that idea.

At Enchanted Rock, just north of Fredericksburg, Texas

So "On This Day" was a natural, but I wanted a second original song, so I just sat down and wrote "All On Christmas Day" in early April. Although the title is similar to my other original, the subject matter is completely different. This song is a passionate wish that we could all keep the Christmas spirit and bring it to life. But like "On This Day" it is really a Country song from stem to stern. Nothing wrong with that if you do it right.

Production was delayed for almost two weeks in April because of the Carnegie Hall show. I had to focus on that, and then head to Manhattan beforehand to rehearse with everyone in the show. COVID was still a thing, and we had to wear masks at the rehearsal hall and other places. In fact, Carnegie Hall required all performers to show a negative COVID test that was taken 24-hours or less before show time, or they would have to wear a mask during the show. So we spent $1400 and got all 20 people tested at our rehearsal hall, so that we could get the results back the same day. Luckily, no one tested negative! It was a risk, because a negative test means that you'd be OUT of the show. It would actually have been safer to not test, and simply wear a mask, but it all worked out.

At Carnegie Hall, April 25, 2022. House left: Thomas Hutchings, me in the center, and David S. Goldman at house right. We performed my song "I See You."

However, a week after returning from New York City, I started feeling like I had a cold. I tested positive for COVID. Well, I could isolate in my studio, which I did. But I was having a very hard time singing. I felt fine aside from my post nasal drip and constant coughing. But I was on a deadline, and I had to get some final vocals down, replacing the temporary "scratch" vocals that I had been recording since February. I also had a trip to Europe coming up that I was really worried about. I contacted my doctor and let them know that I had COVID. I asked them to prepare a letter for me that I could show to the airlines three weeks later, saying that I had had COVID, but was no longer contagious. You can test positive for COVID long after you've had it, so this letter was critical.

I was also concerned about my daughter's wedding coming up in Philadelphia on May 14th. I tested positive on May 1, so I should be fine by then, but I was still concerned.

The immediate problem was singing. I made a really nice recording of "O Holy Night," and had done a scratch vocal before New York. But I really needed to sing the final vocal. I was out of isolation, but the nasty bug in my throat persisted for several months. Singing was not easy.

Fast forward to three months later, and "O Holy Night" won at the Indie Music Channel Awards in Hollywood. In my acceptance speech I told the story of how I recorded it when I had COVID and could barely sing one line at a time without hacking and coughing and swearing in frustration - and how at a certain moment I realized that I was singing a song about the birth of Jesus. I immediately felt terrible about my language and asked for his forgiveness. Apparently he granted it, and allowed me to win the award for Best Contemporary Christian Artist. Here is my award acceptance that night. It's a little bit comical:

I worked every day on the record between Carnegie Hall and going to Europe. My throat was still an issue, and I was really worried about the shows over there. Would I be able to sing well? Or would I be hacking up a lung through the show and making everyone uncomfortable?

I got all the basic tracks for "What Child Is This?" and "Joy To the World" in this time. They needed work, but I had a solid foundation. I could finish them off in June when I got back from Europe.

I have to mention that the most amazing show I played was in Slovenia, in a town near Trbovjle called Hrasnik. There had been television ads for my show, as well as newspaper and internet notices about it. I had sat down with a reporter from a local paper, and filmed a spot for TV up on a beautiful hill in Trbovjle several days before.

The beautiful show in Hrasnik, Slovenia

Much to my amazement, the venue was filled with people wearing cowboy hats and western wear. I didn't know that anyone had these clothes over here, but they did! It was incredible. There was a whole group of ladies who took Western Line Dancing lessons, so they had all the garb. What a beautiful country, and beautiful people.

Two days before the show, the venue owner took me aside and asked for a favor: would I please play John Denver's "Country Roads"? I stammered a little because I don't normally do cover songs. But he said that Slovenians really love that song, and it would be a real crowd-pleaser. I said I would, and I learned the lyrics the next day. Near the end of the show I told the crowd that I would like to finish with "Country Roads" and the room erupted. As I did this song, a hundred people sang along in English. They knew the words better than I did. As I finished the last notes, everyone was on their feet. Then someone started singing it in the Slovenian language. Everyone joined in, so I started playing the guitar again. We did the entire song again in their language. It's one of the most wonderful moments that I've had on stage.

This part of Slovenia is the easternmost extension of the Julian Alps. It's in the mountains. Driving from Austria down to Trbovjle through Prebold means driving on constant S curves up and down a mountain for about 20 minutes. It reminds me of driving over Black Mountain on Route 160, from Virginia into Kentucky. It's a white-knuckle drive for sure, interrupted with amazing views.

I drove into Kentucky over Black Mountain in April 2021, on my way to shoot the video for "The Coal Comes Up" at Portal 31 in Lynch, Kentucky. It's the highest point in Kentucky at more than 4000 feet.

These people are so much like my eastern Kentucky family. There is a long tradition of coal mining here. It's faded away quite a bit in recent years, of course, but coal dust still runs in the blood here. Although Slovenia seems like it's a world away from the hills and hollers of Appalachia, the similarities are striking.

The shows in Europe were actually fine - maybe it was the adrenaline, but I didn't have any throat problems that affected me during the shows. It turned out that I really needed that doctor's note to get back into the USA, because I was still testing positive for COVID, even thought I was no longer contagious to anyone else. That was a relief. The only pain was that Lufthansa required every passenger to wear a mask for all 7+ hours on the plane. Our departure was delayed by nearly two hours, so I had to wear that mask for 9 hours. I was in coach class, which is pretty claustrophobic. I can't count how many times I went down the stairs into one of the bathrooms just so that I could take the mask off for a few minutes.

On board the Lufthansa flight, before everyone was on. The flight ended up 99% full.

After clearing Customs and then getting my bags in Boston, I settled in for a ninety minute drive home, in my own truck, NOT wearing a mask. Heaven.

Then it was back to work on the Christmas album. I spent the rest of June and July on it, improving my vocals and other parts. I had booked Kim Fleming and Kim Mont to record their vocals at Jeff Silverman's studio just outside Nashville on July 5th, the day after Independence Day. So I packed up the truck and did my usual trek to Nashville, spending the night halfway there in West Virginia, then driving the rest of the 16 hours (it's 1000 miles total), on the Fourth of July.

Producer Jeff Silverman

It was great to see Jeff in person again. Jeff and I co-produced my major albums DUST BOWL: AMERICAN STORIES and APPALACHIA: AMERICAN STORIES. The latter album we had to make remotely because of the COVID lock-downs. But it was a year later now and his studio was open for visitors again. The Kims showed up and we got down to business. These are two wonderful ladies and brilliant Gospel singers. They have sung with some of the biggest artists in the business. When they sang on my song "I Found Faith" a year ago it was done remotely, and we only saw each other on Zoom during the recording sessions. But now we were in the same room, which was wonderful. They did such an amazing job on the songs they sang on this time, including "Joy To The World," "Go Tell It On The Mountain" and "The First Noel". I wish I could have afforded to have them sing on every song.

Kim Fleming and Kim Mont - incredible singers

Here is a short snippet of them singing on "Joy To The World" from the control booth.

Kim Fleming and Kim Mont recording a take on "Joy To The World"

I headed back home the next day, reversing my tracks. But I made a pit stop in Horse Cave Kentucky to visit my friend Dave Foster. Dave is a songwriter, too, and he had recorded a song called "An American Dream" that I made a video for. Dave also runs the cave, which is a tourist attraction in this part of Kentucky, and he gave me a private tour. If you ever get a chance to visit Horse Cave, make it a point to stop by and take a tour. It's really pretty remarkable natural feature.

The record company wanted the album by August 1, but the music was on Jeff's shoulders at this point. I comped the vocals from the Kims, but then I turned everything over to Jeff. He dug in and started mixing. Jeff is a real genius at all aspects of music production, and mixing is a special gift that he has. In the same way that they tell lawyers not to represent themselves in court, I think it's a good idea to have someone else mix your music. Another person – particularly someone with Jeff's "ear" and production skills – will hear the thing that you can't as the artist. They will bring out the best in what you have done. He did not disappoint.

When Jeff was done mixing we reviewed all the tracks. We spent a four hour evening going through my cut list of little things that I wanted changed. We used Zoom to see each other and talk, while connected by a program he uses so that he can play high resolution stereo audio to me in real time.

A week later, everything was done, and I turned it all over to the record label. It was a relief, what we men imagine giving birth might be like (we can't really know)... and there was also a post partum sense of loss. I needed to get back onto my MISSISSIPPI record, but I needed a short break to reset my brain. I started in late January, and now it was August 1. I had been steeped in Christmas for months.

While Jeff was finalizing the mixes and masters I did the art side of the project, designing the cover, the CD wallet and even making a 12-page booklet with the lyrics and credits that would go into the wallet.

The label started doing their thing, preparing for an October and November release to Spotify, Apple Music, Amazon and more. That is their area of expertise, and I left them to do their magic. They had allowed me to offer the album on my website on my own label, so I set all that up on my website.

After creating the artwork I ordered the CD packages. I sent out mass emails to my fan list telling them about it, and a bunch of people pre-ordered it. The official release was set starting October 12 for the first single and the entire album on November 4.

Fast forward to today, September 17, and I received the CDs from the vendor in Florida. They look really great, and I can't wait to share them with everyone who ordered them already, and those that will order them now.

Please visit the album's webpage. You can buy a digital download right there, or you can order one of the CDs shown above. I will sign and dedicate each CD to the name(s) of your choice.

Now - back to MISSISSIPPI: AMERICAN STORIES. In parallel with all this I have been reading a dozen books about this topic, educating myself. I also designed and edited a magazine for the Indie Collaborative: 144 pages of goodness which was published in July. If you're interested you can learn about that here:


Grant Maloy Smith

PS - please let me know what you think. You can click the heart button, or better yet, leave me a comment. Thank you!


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