Right from the moment you pick up the album (yes, it’s also available on vinyl) and look at the cover, Amy Grant’s Tennessee Christmas has a vintage feel — and that’s something that she says was by design.
“I feel sort of vintage myself,” Grant says with a big laugh, early in our conversation. “I guess it all developed organically. Technically, the record was not made with a lot of compression. We tried to use just natural room sounds [and not rely on] too much out of technical gear. You’ve got one chance to grab people’s attention. And I even thought, the way we recorded this, you know, the vocals are not flawless. There is human error, but all of that was intentional so that it would feel like a real time experience. When the record first came out, I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, if people do a 15 second spot check on iTunes, it’s not going to fare well!’ Because it wasn’t made to sort of hit you with the wow factor, it was made to be like an old school companion piece. You know, when you would actually put a record on.”
Tennessee Christmas is Grant’s fourth holiday release and her first in nearly 20 years. The title track is one that led off her initial Christmas album in 1983 and it’s been freshly updated to lead off this collection 33 years later. It’s a perfect introduction for this new set of songs — which capture the happy feelings of the season, but also the lonely sad moments — remembering loved ones who are no longer with us — and sometimes, just the sadness of being alone on a holiday.
“My intention for the record was not to create some scenario that somebody looking on would go, ‘Oh wow, I wish I lived that life,’” she explains in a promo video, discussing the making of the album. “Let’s hold a space for all of the sadness that’s a real part of life and then kind of invite into that space the good news. Peace on earth, good will toward men. Our efforts to reach out and touch each other — and it’s done through sentimental songs and songs that just paint simple pictures. This is easy to do. Just light a candle and sing a song.”
She’s singing plenty of songs this month, spreading the holiday cheer with a mix of concerts with longtime friend and collaborator Michael W. Smith — and a string of dates with husband Vince Gill at home in Nashville at the Ryman — a favorite local tradition. We spoke with her in the midst of the current shows, which wrap up on December 22, to talk about the new album.
In the video about the making of this record, you talk about how you envisioned the musical setting as sounding like something that you all could do in a living room and I think that’s what really comes through is the sound of this album, how organic it sounds. It’s not overly polished. And with that comes the feeling that you all really had a good time making this record.
Good. We did. In fact, it was just over so quickly. [Laughs] You know, like most Christmas records, we did it in the summertime and it happened especially fast. Because I was working with three different producers. I was not in the studio at every moment with each producer. You know, I was just bouncing back between them where I was needed most and so it was really a dream to be immersed in something you love doing with people you love working with.
How did you end up working with three producers on this record?
Well, it was really sort of a time issue. I had commitments through most of June and everything had to be wrapped up and delivered, the mastered version, by August. So we were looking at about a six week window. So you have to kind of go, who’s available? I’d worked with Marshall Altman before and Ed Cash. I had never worked with Mac McAnally in the studio. I had done songwriter rounds with him — I love his work. You know, none of those men — and they do a lot of production — had ever done a multi-producer project.
So we met at the record company in a conference room and I said, “Well hey, let me play you what we have so far.” I played original songs and the old songs I wanted to do and I said, “Do you trust us to just kind of divvy up the songs? Is that okay with you guys? Feel free to add if you have an idea that you’d like to bring to the table.” All of them said, “Okay, this is just so fantastic to be part of the team and not feel that excruciating weight of pressure, that you’ve got to make this happen.” Because there’s a lot of pressure on a producer.
So right off the bat, the heat was off. I think it made everybody [comfortable]. And I said things like, “You know, one of my favorite Nat King Cole records has talking on it. I’m not afraid to be corny, but just bear in mind, I would like to figure out some ways to talk on this record.” I don’t know, it just felt like we gave ourselves permission to not create a hit and I think in doing that, we all enjoyed participating in something that turned out incredibly charming.
You mentioned the talking and I love what you did with “Christmas Don’t Be Late.” That’s one that’s so closely associated with the Chipmunks version. It seems like it would be hard to not have that in your head as you’re doing your version. But also, hearing you tell the potholder story, I thought that if that didn’t go well the first time you did it and you did it a lot of times, people in the studio that were a part of the band might never want to hear you talk about potholders again.
[Laughs] Well, here’s the great thing. You know, when I was doing the tracking vocal, all of the band was there. But then when I went in to do the lead vocal, the more polished one, Mac McAnally, he produced that [song] and he just said, “In that instrumental, tell me Christmas stories.” So he ran it from top to bottom and I just talked and I told several stories. But only one time through. And then Mac said, “I’m going to pick what I like and I’m going to place it where I want it.”
So I heard the music in my head, because you kind of pace your voice to the other things that are going on, but Mac actually placed it where he wanted it. Because it would get…there’s no way to do something spontaneously over and over again. [Laughs] That would be mind-numbing.
Was that the first time that you’ve gotten to sing with your daughter on record?
It’s not. And three of my daughters were on that song. But the one that was singing the melody, Sarah, when she was 17, I think, she sang a song with me called “Overnight” and that was years ago. She’s 24 now. She went to college and didn’t sing at all in college. I just thought, her voice is…I mean, they’re all good singers, but you know, that was another thing — I just wanted the kids on the record. We’re a blended family of five kids. So I have a son and another daughter, who lives in New York. They all agreed to participate, but we just couldn’t get them in that time frame. You know, it was just such a short window of time that we were in the studio. So I felt like three out of five, that was pretty good.
It really does seem like in recent years, whether it’s you and Vince or whoever, it’s become a family affair. There is that element to how you guys make records and it’s so cool.
Thanks, yeah. And our live shows too at Christmastime. I’m on the road right now with Michael W. Smith and Jordan Smith, but Vince and I do nine shows at the Ryman Auditorium. Last night, I was headed down and Jenny and Corrina — Jenny sings backup during the show, so she did a solo. But with Corrina, our 15 year old, I said, “Hey, do you want to come sing tonight?” She had too much homework. So the homework depends on whether she’s going to be able to come to the show. But that’s life. You’ve got to do your homework when you’re 15! [Laughs]
I saw a video of Corrina doing “Grown-Up Christmas List” with you that was posted on your Facebook page.
Oh my gosh, that cracked me up. It was two nights ago. She didn’t even ask — she sang a harmony part on the second verse and it was like pedal to the metal. And I was like, “Well, you were very bold, but there were certainly some wrong notes in there!” [Laughs] It was so funny!
It’s a cool full circle moment hearing the new version of “Tennessee Christmas.” I like that it’s the one that led off your first Christmas record and it’s the one that leads off this record. What brought you back to that song?
Well, I’ve sung it for 33 years. You know, when I listen…..when I hear it, I should just say, when I stumble on it — as much fun as I have making records, I don’t ever play them in my own home. Because I’m afraid that somebody would walk in and go, “Who is the egomaniac who lives here?” [Laughs] But when I hear it, you know, in a shopping mall or whatever, I always think, “Ooh, man, so much life has gone by since then.”
That’s always how it hits me, so I wanted to redo it. Also, you know, that was a long time ago and songs have their day, but a generation and a half of people have come into being since then. I just wanted to reintroduce the song.
I wanted to hear about “Melancholy Christmas” from your perspective. It’s a song on this record that I really love. There’s a lyric midway through the song, “You could come over/ It’s not too late/ Don’t worry about presents/ I’ve saved you a place.” How did you envision the scene that those words paint? Because I can see it a couple of different ways.
Well, the first line [in the song] was inspired by my 15 year old, who posts a lot of pictures and I’ve watched her grow up with a totally different reality of what it means to be seen and liked. And I don’t even….I mean, there are pros and cons to every reality, so. But the song itself and a couple of songs on the record were inspired by that first meeting with the producers over at Capitol. We’re sitting around the table and I played all of the songs. “To Be Together” had already been written, “December,” you know, we’re just kind of talking through everything. And Marshall said, “Hey, could we write a song that would be appropriate for a kid like me?” I mean, he’s a man now, with children.
He pulled up his favorite Christmas song on his phone, which is by the Pogues, an Irish band. The singer sounds like he’s completely hammered and he’s in a holding tank. [Laughs] It’s so depressing! And I said, “This is your favorite Christmas song?” And he said, “Well, yeah. You know, I grew up in Queens, my parents had split up, my sister was gone and we’re across the street from this boisterous Italian family.” He said, “I was so glad that they would invite me to come to their house on Christmas Eve.” It was just this big Catholic family and it’s loud and there’s food and there’s presents. And he said, “They always had a gift for me, but at some point, I had to go back to my house, which was dark and I was sometimes alone. I would sit in my room and look out my window at the house across the street that was all lit up.” He said, “Can we write that song?”
The first meeting that Marshall and I had, we just started, I was holding a guitar and playing a little something and then I just sang out, “I post another picture/ From the quiet of my room.” And it just went from there. We affectionately called that song “Friendship 101.” [Laughs] As a teaching tool for my daughter. Because the end of it is, it’s going, “Oh my gosh, we truly are all connected.” Deeply connected. Spiritually connected. But not everybody lives with that awareness. But we are, whether we are aware of it or not. I feel like anytime we make some intentional move towards that truth, we are all better for it. I mean, I think that’s why Jesus said, when you do it to the least of these, you do it to me. In a huge over-arcing way, he’s saying, “Hey, you are connected to that person begging on the street corner. You don’t know it, but I know it. Heads up — if you do something good for somebody else, you are in reality, doing something good for yourself.” And all are helped.
So not to get super-heavy, but I think you can through creativity allude to deep spiritual truth and you don’t have to light it up and go “Hey!” In fact, that’s really the most compelling sort of truth experience is for somebody to feel like they’ve stumbled on and discovered [it]. The greatest experience we had with this record is right after it came out on October 21. I didn’t actually see this myself, but it was brought to my attention. Somebody had posted on Facebook, “I’m so excited for Amy’s new record, but it’s kind of a two-edged sword. Because it’s a Christmas record, which is the hardest time of the year for me. The last three Christmases, I have sat alone in my wheelchair with not even a call from anybody.”
And I guess shortly after that, somebody else posted, “It’s been two years for me with no connection to anywhere on Christmas Day.” A third post, someone said, “Well, I connect with my family, but it’s pretty tragic.” And then rather than things taking a negative nosedive, because of their awareness of each other, the next comment — or somewhere in the line of comments was, “This year, let’s check on each other.” And I just went, “Oh my gosh, yes!” It was my dream.
These shows that you’re playing with Michael, one of the first shows that I saw back in 1988 was when you both toured together. It’s been great to see you guys continue that collaboration over the years.
Where do you live?
I’m in Cleveland.
Man, I wish we were bringing this Christmas show to Cleveland. I’ve been telling Michael that of all of the years that he and I have worked together, this might be the most special collaboration ever. You know, just the way it’s fallen into place. Maybe it’s just this season — and it certainly has something to do with our special guest.
He’s a phenom. Oh my gosh, yes! He is….. [Long pause] You know, I’ve been around some amazing singers — I’m married to one of the best musicians I’ve ever heard. And Jordan, he just takes my breath away every night, hearing him sing. And he’s funny — he does not take himself seriously. He’s just the perfect package.
It’s pretty cool, as far as you are into your career, to the point where you could be severely jaded, it’s cool that you can still have moments like that and be blown away by somebody. I think anybody who knows you and Vince, you guys are definitely different from the normal pack.
[Laughs] Well, it’s funny — different things matter to us. I think we keep each other alive to the moment in a good way. If one of us kind of has the wind out of our sails for whatever reason, it’s nice to have somebody there that sees the fatigue of life on the road, but also the value of it. We help keep each other level and optimistic.
Wrapping up, as a fan, I’ll ask you, what was it like working with Peter Cetera on “The Next Time I Fall”?
[Laughs] Two things pop to mind. Working with him on the video, that’s a whole other story. But when I worked with him in the recording studio, I’d never met him. Plus, I’d grown up with all of the Chicago records and it was the producer’s idea for me to sing. Michael Omartian, I had known [Michael] and been aware of him, but I’d never worked with him. I got a call from Michael and I was in Atlanta visiting my college roommate.
I [got that] call from Michael on a wall phone and I just remember sliding down to a seated position going, “How did I get this call?” Like, did all [of the] female singers get laryngitis and you’re in a time crunch, so I got the call? [Laughs] But the invitation came from Michael and he said, “I thought this would be a great thing. I know you could sing with [Peter].” I don’t have a real range-y voice. I went out there and a lot of times you can be on a project with somebody and never even meet them.
So when I flew to Los Angeles to work, I didn’t anticipate that Peter was even going to be there. But he was fun and funny and we actually sang part of the song on mic together. That was the first time I had ever worked with a producer that let me sing the song all of the way through, four or five times through and then he just did a composite of his favorite lines. It’s a very efficient way to do it and now, everybody does it that way, but it was the first time I had ever done it that way. Of course I had a million questions for Peter about the Chicago days. It was really fun and really enjoyable.
Fans can purchase Tennessee Christmas at Cracker Barrel Old Country Store locations nationwide and online at the Cracker Barrel website, part of their Spotlight Music Program.
Photo credit: Russ Harrington