Christmas Guitar in Nashville
by Roger Hudson
Becoming a professional guitarist is many a young person's dream. The idea of performing before thousands of adoring fans is very attractive. Even more exciting is the thought of playing and recording for an audience that has become familiar with your original creations. Perhaps, in time, some of those originals become known as standards, and you are inducted into the cultural "hall of fame". Grandiose illusion tends to fuel desire. Sometimes the grandiose illusion becomes reality, but usually it doesn't. The fact is, becoming a professional at anything requires a lot of compromise and adaptation, not to mention- simply getting the job done.
For example, I've never known a young guitarist whose great dream is to become known for his/her Christmas performances. It certainly hasn't been a personal dream of mine. Yet, in my journey to become a professional musician I have learned, sometimes the hard way, the value of accepting a challenge that doesn't seem to lend itself to fulfilling my personal goals. My many and varied experiences playing Christmas gigs have been gratifying in ways that I never would have envisioned. True to the spirit of giving, playing guitar in Christmas shows, parties, Christmas villages and theater productions have been an experience that has often pulled me out of a self-centered artistic neurosis. A guitarist who accepts the performing opportunities that arise during the holidays will discover unexpected joys.
Like many musicians, my first holiday gigs were not ones that I actually sought out. I think my first holiday gig was a Christmas party. My name had circulated as someone to hire for weddings, wine parties, art gallery receptions, etc. I had a few Christmas arrangements but no real "Christmas set" per se. I quickly realized at the party that when I played my two or three Christmas arrangements people would quiet down a little and actually listen (except the ones that had already drank too much eggnog!). To be honest, I felt a little baffled by the guests' responses because the rest of my set had been filled with technical classical pieces, sophisticated jazz standards and my pet originals. Then, after accepting some compliments from listeners, I realized that many of them had never really heard Christmas music played in a solo classical/fingerstyle manner. The agreeable tone color of a nylon-string guitar coupled with the nostalgic affection for Christmas carols had truly touched the listeners' ears and hearts.
After this first Christmas gig I typically over-analyzed what I had just experienced. Why did they like those simple Christmas arrangements so much? Should I make these arrangements a little more sophisticated so that I can show-off my technique better? I came to the conclusion that all that was really required was musical stewardship. No, the arrangements didn't need to be more sophisticated. They liked the carols because of their simplicity. They liked the carols on the solo guitar because they like the sound of the acoustic guitar. All I needed to do was to follow a simple recipe. After all, the focus of the Christmas party was not on my music or me. In fact, I have come to realize what a relief it is that the music that I play during the holidays is not about me! My role is as a facilitator, helping listeners to reflect upon the spirit of the season.
That first Christmas gig was only the beginning of my Christmas guitar connection. Like many Americans during the holidays, I was soon sucked into Christmas capitalism. Now, I had a Christmas job playing every night at a Christmas village from November 15 through New Year's Eve. This was a little more serious than just playing a few Christmas carols at a party! I would now be on a stage with lights and a sound system. I was expected to play two-and-one-half hours of 90% holiday music every night. This challenge led me to arrange more Christmas carols that I would record on a CD called Strings of Light. I would offer it for sale at the gig. I was now a true Christmas capitalist! I should have been ashamed. I soon came to understand that the shame would lie in not having a Christmas CD to offer. The Christmas villagers and guests wanted to take the music home with them and a CD would give them that opportunity. As it turned out I was deluged with inquiries as to whether or not I had a Christmas CD and where could they buy it. I sold a lot of Christmas CDs in the 2 years that I did that gig.
Unexpected opportunities arose and contacts were made in those two years as well. One night as I was playing my last set, a large bearded man sat down in the first row of seats and seemed to listen intently to my performance. He looked vaguely familiar. As I wrapped up the show and was putting my guitar away, the man approached me and told me that he really liked my guitar playing. He introduced himself as Jeff Cook from the country band Alabama! Huh? Well, I spoke with him a while and he said that he wanted me to record an instrumental version of Alabama's 1985 Christmas album (Christmas in Dixie, Tennessee Christmas, etc.). That meeting led to my recording Alabama Christmas Memories. This was not something that I had never anticipated doing but the professional benefits from doing so have turned out to be far-reaching. As a professional, there is value in simply accepting the job and completing it.
Since relocating to Nashville I have been involved in various Christmas theater productions. I assume the reason that I get calls to do these gigs is because I can read music and play in a variety of styles - more or less. My first theater gig involved playing either electric or acoustic guitar with a rhythm section accompanying singers. The tunes involved playing rhythm guitar, lead, or solo guitar and quick changes between each. I'm thankful that I learned how to read and never sold my electric! This gig was actually rather straightforward in that the show was merely a series of carols sung by soloists that required accompaniment. Nonetheless, the show's varied styles required me to step out of my usual solo guitar comfort zone and forced me to grow professionally. What was especially nice about this gig was that I didn't have to take a "real job" as a seasonal clerk at a department store!
Just as my first Christmas party gig led to a more challenging one, my first Christmas theater gig in Nashville led to a more elaborate and demanding one. Late one November I got a call from Paul Binkley. Paul is a first-class musician and can do it all: compose, play solo guitar, arrange, accompany, etc. So I wondered what a fine guitarist like Paul wanted of me. I soon found out that he would be busy during the holidays with his main gig - that of being musical director for the previously mentioned band Alabama. Ironically, he seemed to have no idea that I had done any work for Alabama and the task he had for me had nothing to do with Alabama. This was a little weird. He wanted me to do what he had been doing on guitar in a Christmas production called A Southern Christmas Sampler. Paul had essentially scored the music for this production; which involved a guitarist accompanying singers and performing incidental music to be played at precise moments during the one-and-one-half-hour show. If this weren't enough terror, I would be put into a situation where the actors had already done the show for several years and had become quite accustomed to the way Paul had been doing it.
So, as a young man with grandiose dreams of being a guitar star, would I have had any idea that I would ever be faced with a job such as this? Thankfully, as well as being a great musician, Paul has a good sense of humor and put me at ease. He joked about the fact that the order that I had was a tall one - ridiculously so. However, he cleverly stroked my ego by noting that there were very few guitarists in Nashville who could do the job. Cynically, I wondered if there were any guitarists in Nashville that would do the job! Of course, I would! It was music - good music. I knew that I would learn something from the experience. Furthermore, it was an in-town gig that would keep me at home with my family during the holidays.
As it turned out, like so many of my Christmas gigs, A Southern Christmas Sampler was an unexpected joy. The labor and stress of preparation was worth it when I finally heard the enthusiastic applause. I also was encouraged by the fact that the actors, many of them full-time professionals, seemed quite pleased with the job I had done. What I learned from the gig was to do what the recipe calls for and not force my will on the situation. Get the job done! In fact, the specialized role that I played in that one production led to similar gigs in subsequent years and has led to many professional contacts.
Have my Christmas guitar performances inspired dreams of being a "Christmas guitarist"? Well, no. Do I still have grandiose dreams of thousands (why not millions?) of adoring fans who crave hearing my original compositions and live performances. Sure! Do I have delusions of grandeur? Well… I suppose that the transition from amateur to professional is one from fantasy to reality. An amateur rarely accepts a challenge that is uncomfortable. A professional may decline a challenge, but the reality is that in order to be a professional, saying "yes" is often a prerequisite. The beauty of saying "yes" to an unexpected challenge lies in the mysteries of fate. There is no way I could have predicted the wonderful joy and professional and personal benefits that I have experienced just by saying "yes" at Christmastime!
Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays and Happy New Year!
Listen to Roger play "I Saw Three Ships" from his CD Strings of Light
Available at www.rogerhudson.com.
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