Home For Christmas was released in November 2014 by The Whisnants and Mark Trammell Quartet as the group’s first joint recording together. There are twelve songs on this CD: four from the Whisnants, four from MTQ and four where both groups sing together. This project combined traditional with modern, family harmony with quartet singing and the all-time favorite Christmas carols that you want to hear with new material that you’ll want to keep hearing throughout the holiday season.
The Mark Trammell Quartet and Whisnants make for an interesting pair. There’s a male quartet and a family group. Together, there is only one lady in the mix. In concert, the age difference on stage goes from teenager/young adult all the way up to early fifties. It may be tempting to think that with all the differences it would be difficult to unify the groups to bring them together, but, they used all of those things to their advantage. When you listen to this CD, two things are going to come to mind: 1) they’ve either been singing together like this their whole lives or 2) they’re more like one group than two.
Differences Explained In Material
What are the strengths that The Mark Trammell Quartet brought to this project? Simply, they contributed what they do best – traditional music. Their four songs are God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, The Christmas Song, O Holy Night and O Beautiful Star of Bethlehem. God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen goes back to Mark’s Cathedral days and is the same vocal arrangement – the track behind it comes from the genius of Lari Goss. Once again, the orchestration behind O Holy Night is also from the hand of Goss. Beautiful Star and The Christmas Song are befitting of MTQ and fill in that typical Christmas sound with a touch of Country/Bluegrass. All in all, MTQ brings mostly a Classical background to the project with a hint of that “full harmony” and Country-Grass thrown in…just to prove that they can be diverse.
The Whisnants bring relatively new songs to the platform, which are, Without Christ There’s No Christmas, I Call Him Lord, Jesus Brought Joy to the World and If You Could See What I See. The Whisnants have always been masters at their craft when picking lyrics and tunes, their long collection of hits proves it, and here they have done it again with these four selections. With the exception of bringing back Dottie Rambo’s “I Call Him Lord,” all are solid brand new songs. Musically, the sound stays traditional and very “Whisnant-like” in what you would expect from them concerning ballads and you will hear a few lead guitars and a good driving beat in the faster selections. You just have to hear them!
When both groups come together in the remaining four songs: Unspeakable Joy, Silent Night, Christmas Times A Comin’ and the Faithful Medley, you’re going to hear a blend that’s so good you won’t even know that there’s more than “one” group on the track. As for the tracks, you’ll hear the “Christmassy” aspects of each arrangement in all twelve. A little brass here and some strings there…it all comes together and blends from track one all the way to the end. Considering all the different styles on this CD, that’s quite the feat! I also liked how the solos were distributed throughout the project too. With seven different voices on the recording it’s tough to fit everyone in on their own feature, especially when you have such strong singers and are including the amount of congregational type songs that they did, but these guys did a great job of including everyone with the material that they had in the style they wanted. Susan and Mark were both featured twice, Aaron and Nick each had their own song and Jeff had lines in two songs. Randy and Dustin were the only ones who weren’t directly featured on a song, but when you consider that five out of the twelve songs were recorded where either both groups were singing together or everyone in one group singing together, I think that ratio is pretty awesome.
1 Unspeakable Joy
Feature: Jeff Whisnant and Mark Trammell
Message: Joy! That’s what we want to hear on a Christmas project, right? Well, that’s what this recording begins with – joy. Starting with the refrain, the lyrics talk about the unspeakable joy that Christ’s birth brought to us through the message the angels sang out that first Christmas night. The first verse provides a list of names that He will be known by and what they mean to us who believe. My favorite line of the hymn is found in the second verse: “Eden’s deep wound will be taken away by the Lamb laying there with the sheep.” Marvelous thought, indeed!
Other Comments: With a gentle roll on the drums, the strings launch us into this classic carol and with it, the first project from the Mark Trammell Quartet and Whisnants. Being the first song on the recording, it gives you a taste of what to expect from Home For Christmas, and that is simply both groups coming together to celebrate the season! With the drums tapping along in the background and the strings swelling in their melodious sounds you’ll Jeff Whisnant singing the first verse and after a chorus, Mark Trammell takes the feature on the second.
2 Silent Night
Feature: Susan Whisnant
Message: We are all familiar with the sweet lyrics of this carol and in this rendition we hear all three verses of the traditional English version. It is commonly known that the hymn was originally written in German by Joseph Mohr in 1816. While doing a little research for this review, I happened upon an interesting post from (http://www.stillenacht.at/en/text_and_music.asp) and found that Silent Night initially had six verses! If you follow the link you can read an exact translation from German to English. Very cool! I highly recommend it!
Other Comments: The track opens with the sound of diminished chords descending on the piano, then a few more instruments join in a moment later and both groups sing a few bars of “ooos.” Susan begins the first verse and is joined by her husband Jeff and Mark Trammell on the second. When the third verse comes around, everyone chimes in until the last line, which brings Susan back into the spotlight. This arrangement has a nice effect in concert and has a good build though it is a laid back song. On the other hand, with the idea of featuring Susan because she is the only lady and has the unique position of singing this ballad from “the heart of a mother” (as Mark Trammell puts it); I think it would be interesting to hear Susan sing all the verses by herself with the guys just providing backup.
3 God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen
Feature: The Mark Trammell Quartet
Message: Comprised of four verses that tell the Christmas story, God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen hails from 1800’s, the first stanza telling “the gentlemen” to rest and remember how and why Christ came… “To save the world from Satan’s power when we were gone astray!” The second and third verse, in essence, tells the story of Bethlehem. So then, the closing stanza tells those who are listening to “sing praises” and “love another” because of the gift we have received that first Christmas night!
Other Comments: This track was originally arranged by Lari Goss for Greater Vision’s seasonal recording, Everything Christmas. If you’re familiar with Lari’s works you will immediately recognize his magical touch and expertise in this piece. It is a dramatic composition that fits MTQ’s taste just as well as GV’s. I particularly enjoy the use of the wind instruments throughout the arrangement.
4 The Christmas Song
Feature: Mark Trammell
Message: With a title like, The Christmas Song, one would expect every line to be filled with thoughts that immediately bring season to mind…and so it is! It begins with expectation – this is the part of the year we’ve all been waiting for! What have we been waiting for? The rest of the song tells us… The sound of silver bells, angels singing, a warm fireplace, mistletoe, restless children looking for Santa and his flying reindeer, etc. So to folks of all ages, Merry Christmas!
Other Comments: The Christmas Song seems to find a home in all genres. It’s always a favorite! On this CD, it’s Mark Trammell’s solo. You’ll hear the others coming in to sing an “ooo” every now and then, but other than that, the spotlight is on Mark all the way through. Musically, the piano is the most prominent instrument and a few chimes will sound here and there. It is a very relaxing ballad. Be sure to listen for the violin at 2:35!
5 Without Christ There’s No Christmas
Feature: The Whisnants
Message: Without Christ There’s No Christmas is another where the lyrics cover all of the things one would traditionally associate with Christmastime. In the first verse, folks are bustling around town, others are traveling to see loved ones and there’s an overall joy that seems to evade us at other times of the year. Trees, traditions, cozy fireplaces…this lyric says that all of those things are okay as long as we don’t forget that holy night long ago. The chorus reminds us of why we get to do all of the things listed in the first verse – because Christ came! Without Him we have no reason to celebrate – He’s the hope of the season and the center of every celebration. Verse two continues to paint the picture of a true American Christmas. Cold weather, mistletoe, garland on the tree, caroling while the snow falls, parties, concerts, etc. But the bridge sums it up best, “Don’t ‘X’ Him out, remember His name, we are the reason He came!”
Other Comments: The intro starts with a lead guitar and bouncy chord progression on the piano that takes us into a snappy tune you won’t soon forget! Aaron, Susan and Jeff each sing a line in the verses and then they all come together for the chorus. This is a new song and I’m so glad the Whisnants recorded it – the message is superb!
6 I Call Him Lord
Feature: The Whisnants
Message: Christ has many different names in the Scripture – which one is most significant to you? The writer of this ballad answers, “Lord.” The first verse begins by giving the listener a good list of names that the promised One has been known by in the Word: Master, Redeemer, Savior of the World, Wonderful, Counselor, Bright Morning Star (to name a few…) The chorus goes back to what He was called the night Gabriel appeared to Mary – Jesus. Yet, to those who love Him, the writer says that the most important name of all is simply, Lord. The second verse goes on to remind us of His other names, such as, Jehovah, Messiah, Mighty God, Bread of Life, Fountain of Living Waters…
Other Comments: This is one of those songs where the music stays quiet and serene in the background while the vocals are the focus of the piece. With that style, you will hear instruments that have a soothing effect; like the piano, acoustic guitar, mandolin and a very mild tap on the drums. Because of the unity used in the interpretation you will hear a lot of harmony and little features. Though there are two instances where a line is led by Jeff and echoed by the others at the beginning of the second verse and Aaron does the same later on in the same stanza.
7 Christmas Times a Comin’
Feature: Nick Trammell
Message: Kicking off with the chorus, we hear the blissful line, “Christmas times a coming!” repeated over and over. With bells ringing joyfully and snow covering the ground, the one observing these things feels that soon, it will be time to return to their country home. The verses revisit the same themes introduced in the chorus. Everything heralds the coming season – even the pine trees seem to be humming that Christmas is near! Holly is in the windows and this heart longs for that “home” off in the country.
Other Comments: Sleigh bells, banjo, piano and strings make for an interesting, yet completely enjoyable, opening to this fun tune. Nick Trammell is featured on both verses but when we reach the chorus both MTQ and the Whisnants sing together. There is a heavy “fiddle” presence in this track which gives it a “Country Christmas” feel that fits the lyrics perfectly. Great up-beat selection!
8 O Holy Night
Feature: Mark Trammell
Message: Every time I hear this ballad I sit in awe of the brilliant writing behind the lyrics. Truly, a special anointing abode in the pen of Placide Cappeau de Roquemaure when he wrote this carol. It is like a dramatic story. At the beginning everything is burdened by the weight of bondage…until He appeared. Hope sends a spark of change throughout the land and the weary rejoice with the “new a glorious morn.” His “law is love” and breaks the chains of those in captivity – the slave is now raised up to be our brother – in Christ’ name “oppression shall cease.” What a holy night, indeed!
Other Comments: From the homey sound of the previous track we are ushered into the majestic sounds of a full orchestra in Mark’s solo, O Holy Night. This arrangement is the same from the Christmas CD that the group released during their trio days in 2008. (That CD was also named Home For Christmas.) I, for one, never tire of hearing Mark sing that arrangement!
9 Jesus Brought Joy to the World
Feature: Aaron Hise
Message: The theme is just as the title says, Jesus brought joy to the world – men, women, boys, girls, everyone! The first stanza tells us to spread the good news to all people, the old and young, everybody! He is the only way and when your darkest night comes, He will shine bright through it. The second stanza explains that He is for the weak and the strong, as well as the rich and poor. No matter who you are or what station of life you find yourself in, you are welcome to “come right in there’s an open door!”
Other Comments: A Jazzy lead guitar brings us into the energetic drive of this fun song. It was mentioned above that the Whisnants contributed a lot of new material to this project and Jesus Brought Joy to the World is one of those songs! It has a snappy beat and a great message that you will be humming the first time you hear it!
10 Faithful Medley
Feature: Whisnants and MTQ
Message: Beginning with the first verse of O Come All Ye Faithful, the invitation is spread to come and adore Him, the Christ. After another verse of O Come All Ye Faithful the medley moves into the first verse of Joy to the World where we hear the familiar words, “Let every heart prepare him room,” and later on in the second verse, “He rules the world with truth and grace.”
Other Comments: When you think about how a Christmas song is supposed to “sound” you will agree that the music behind this track is a perfect example. There is a heavy string and brass influence in the arrangement – when you hear the trumpets you’ll know what I’m talking about! The Faithful Medley is comprised of O Come All Ye Faithful and Joy to the World and is sung by both groups.
11 Oh Beautiful Star of Bethlehem
Feature: The Mark Trammell Quartet
Message: The lyrics of this tune use the star of Bethlehem as a metaphor of the light that leads us through the Christian life. In the first verse, we see the star in its original usage – leading the wise men to Christ. But then, in the chorus, the star is “asked” to shine on us as well and to continue to light our way until Christ returns and takes us to glory. Next, we hear of the star being “the hope of rest” for the redeemed. My all-time favorite line comes follows, “Jesus is now that star divine, brighter and brighter He will shine, O beautiful star of Bethlehem shine on…”
Other Comments: For the last several years, when you’ve heard a Southern Gospel arrangement of this song, it was always to the same track. Now, the Mark Trammell Quartet has recorded this classic with a new twist! Instead of the expected plucking of strings and an added fiddle that gave the song a Bluegrass feel, this new track immediately begins with a fiddle playing background to the piano which is the main focus of the intro. Thank you MTQ for giving us something fresh to listen to!
12 If You Could See What I See
Feature: Susan Whisnant
Message: This is one of those songs were I’m tempted to quote every line because I want you to hear it in the original and not a paraphrase of the beautiful words. And I’m going to do it! The song is written for those who have lost loved ones – and we all know that loss is often felt the most during holidays. The ballad is written in first person as if the loved one in heaven is talking to the one/ones left behind on earth. Here’s what they have to say…
On earth we said our goodbyes when the Father called me away
The angels came to greet me and they me carried through heavens gates
I know you often miss me, especially at this time of year
But if you look through the windows of heaven, one glimpse would dry all your tears
If you could see what I see, if you could hear what I hear
My eyes saw the face of the King, my ears the angels sing
On earth you could never image, what Christmas is like in heaven
It’s beyond your farthest dreams, if you could see what I see…
As you tie your gifts with gold ribbons, I’m walking upon golden streets
As you light your Christmas candles, the Lamb is the light here for me
I’ve talked with Mary and Joseph, they have many memories to share
All the shepherds and the wise men have stories of their own to tell…
And when your work on earth is finished and you join me here in this land.
At the gate I’ll run to meet you and take you by the hand…
Other Comments: There are a few things that all of the good “Whisnant ballads” have in common. This one is no exception; it has everything you expect to hear, plus a whole lot more. Musically, there’s the guitar being softly plucked, the strings, a moving lyric and the delivery from Susan’s sweet alto that reaches into the depth of your soul every time. That aside, this is one of the best “new” Christmas songs I’ve heard that’s relevant to the pain and loss that so many feel at this time of year. I would give the whole CD a 5 star rating based on this song alone – it’s that good!
Conclusion: After listening to this project throughout the holiday season and then attending a few of the Home For Christmas Tour dates this year, all I can is, I hope there’s more to come! This CD isn’t the kind that you listen to once, add a few songs to an already existing playlist, and then file it away to the back of your i-pod or music library. You’re going to be listening all the way through this project. The Whisnants and MTQ recorded a variety of songs that I know you’ll enjoy if you invest in this CD. I give it 5 stars!