Every once in a while, a Kansas City band releases an original Christmas song. But it’s unusual for area musicians to put out an entire album of holiday standards.
That’s what the bluegrass band Old Sound did this year, but making it happen involved something like a Christmas miracle.
“This is one those instances where the universe starts kind of opening up and giving you signs,” says guitarist Chad Brothers.
At a weekly gig about eight months ago, a local live music fan and friend of theirs known affectionately by musicians around town as Jim the Blind Guy suggested a potential opportunity for the band.
“He always has these interesting ideas, and he came up to me during a set break in our show,” Brothers remembers. “He said, ‘Hey, have you ever thought about getting into the Christmas game?’ I chuckled, and I thought ‘That’s an interesting idea.’”
Though they call themselves Old Sound, the band is relatively new. Brothers and Greg Herrenbruck, the bass player, met growing up in Winfield, Kansas, a town that becomes the center of the bluegrass world every September during the Walnut Valley Festival. About three years ago, they were joined in Kansas City by Grady Keller on banjo and guitar.
Since they’re still a young band and had only released one album, selling them on the idea of a Christmas record took an even bigger nudge from the cosmos.
“I got an email from a guy at Worlds of Fun,” says Brothers, “and he said, ‘We’re planning a new event this year. It’s going to be the first time we do it. It’s called Winterfest, and it’s going to revolve around Christmas.' He said, ‘We’re looking for a bluegrass band to come in and play bluegrass Christmas music.’”
The band decided to give it a try. They also saw a chance to make a little bit of extra Christmas money by having another record to sell at the gigs.
“We decided ‘Well, if we’re going to do this, let’s record a Christmas album,’” Brothers says.
"An Old Sound Christmas" was born.
The record contains just seven songs, all of them standards such as “White Christmas,” “Jingle Bells” and “Silent Night.” But playing five sets every night at Worlds of Fun has required them to bring new songs into the mix almost every evening to keep the show as high-energy as possible. As a result, their live Christmas repertoire is expanding rapidly, with surprises like the Hawaiian “Mele Kalikimaka.”
“You’d be amazed how many of these classic versions of Christmas songs embody this sort of folk or acoustic vibe,” Brothers says. “You hear these guys kind of plunking at an upright bass, and you think ‘Oh, this would work for a bluegrass format.’”
The best Christmas songs seem to spring straight from a musician’s memories. That was especially true for Herrenbruck’s version of “Jolly Old Saint Nicholas.”
“He had his own take on the song,” says Brothers. “He took it a step further and wrote a verse about his kids and his wife and what they hoped to get for Christmas.”
The verse reveals not just a family’s Christmas desires, but also a dad’s satisfaction with simply helping Santa out.
“Some people who know us as a band have listened to the album and said, ‘That’s the most Old Sound-type of song on the album,’” Brothers says of “Jolly Old Saint Nicholas.”
The record also gave them a chance to pay tribute to a fallen hero with the one Christmas song they already had in their repertoire, having learned Tom Petty’s “Christmas All Over Again” for a holiday party last year.
“We had already decided to record a Christmas album, and then Tom Petty passed away,” Brothers says.
“Most people don’t think of Tom Petty as a Christmas artist,” he adds.
But with its evocations of Christmas dreams — and realities — Petty’s “Christmas All Over Again” highlights how completely the holidays bring things full circle.
That’s especially true this year for Old Sound.
“I have a lot of childhood memories — we used to come up to of Worlds of Fun and we'd go there for family vacation,” Brothers says. “It’s pretty neat to go to work at a theme park.”
After a 22-night run, Old Sound might be more than ready to pack their newly learned Christmas songs back in their boxes. But so far, this holiday’s unexpected turn of events has been a blast.
“It was a real joy,” Brothers says. “I never thought that I would be recording a Christmas album.”
Old Sound, 5 p.m., 6 p.m., 7 p.m., 8 p.m. and 9 p.m. through December 30 during WinterFest operating days on the Country Junction Stage at Worlds of Fun, 4545 Worlds of Fun Avenue, Kansas City, Missouri, 64161; 816-454-4545.
KCUR contributor Mike Warren has written for a variety of local and national music publications, including No Depression. Follow him @MikeWarrenKC.