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Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Mindy Smith "Away In A Manger"

Artist: Mindy Smith
Song: Away In A Manger
CD: My Holiday
Genre: Christmas
Label: Vanguard Records

Mindy Smith has fond memories of the holiday season from growing up on Long Island.

Her dad taking the family into New York City to go window shopping and meet Santa Claus at Macy’s. Her mom making fresh cinnamon rolls from scratch. Singing along with a favorite album by John Denver and the Muppets. And the endless hours waiting until Christmas morning when the kids could jump on their parents’ bed and start the festivities.

“I don’t really remember a lot of the gifts that I got,” Smith says. “What I remember is the family experience, and how much fun we had. I remember at the end of the day, just being worn out from all the excitement and anticipation.”

It’s this sense of nostalgia, simple joy and togetherness that Smith brings to her first Christmas album, My Holiday. A collection of eleven gentle, acoustic-driven originals and standards, it’s infused with warmth that mixes classic Currier and Ives charm with a youthful glow and twinkle.

“With this record, I’m not trying to put out a message of any kind, other than Christmas is fun and to appreciate the things that you have,” the singer-songwriter says. “I think Christmas is about expressing gratitude to people and saying, ‘I’m thankful that you’re in my life.’

“As for the sound of the record, I just wanted to keep true to what I do musically, and incorporate some old jazz standards, because I really enjoy singing that style of music. I think the songs all fell together naturally. I like it, because it’s not the usual Christmas sound.”

As with her previous highly acclaimed albums – One Moment More (2004) and Long Island Shores (2006) – what immediately lifts My Holiday above the usual is Smith’s voice. Delicate and clear as blown glass, and tinged with a kind of blue yearning, it’s the kind of voice that communicates directly to the heart. And then there’s the songwriting. Working by herself and with notable country artists Chely Wright and Thad Cockrell - on winsome songs such as “My Holiday,” “Follow The Shepherd Home” and the lump-in-the-throat “Santa Will Find You” - Smith delivers the same sense of purpose and craft that once moved Dolly Parton to say, “Mindy will leave her mark as one of our greatest writers and singers ever.”

“When you sit down to write a Christmas song,” Smith says, “you have to think about how you feel at Christmas, and what it is about the holiday season that moves you. It’s a different thought process than just writing a song about life in general.

“I think there are certain note selections and chord progressions that can make a new Christmas song familiar. I think that happened with the songwriting process on this album, in that there were a lot of familiar musical choices. It wasn’t intentional. It’s just where I naturally went to with these notes and words. Then bringing something a little new to the table. I think all of those elements come together in a Christmas song.”

She also brings her own open-eyed take to a handful of seasonal standards, like “Silver Bells,” “I’ll Be Home For Christmas,” “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?” and “The Christmas Song” with an understated charm that makes them glisten anew.

“I’ve never sung any of the standards before,” Smith confesses. “I didn’t want to stray too far from the style of music that they are. I think the feel for those kinds of songs needs to be spontaneous, in order to interpret them in a new way. So we just got in there and had a good time and let the songs breathe.”

That really gets at the heart of what My Holiday is about. A fresh take on the feelings of the Christmas season. Tenderness for the past, courage for the present, hope for the future, wrapped in a sense of peace and goodwill, and wreathed with smiles.

Recorded in Nashville and co-produced by Smith with Steve Buckingham, My Holiday features drummer Eddie Bayers, bassist Michael Rhodes and guitarist Kenny Vaughan as well as Smith’s longtime musical associate, Lex Price, on mandala. There are also special vocal cameos by Chely Wright, Thad Cockrell and on the hushed and beautiful “Away In the Manger,” Alison Krauss (“That was amazing for me - she’s one of my heroes,” Smith gushes). “I hope people find it fun to listen to,” Smith reflects. “It sure was fun to make. I think rather than a Christmas record, it’s more of a holiday record, and it can reach anybody who celebrates the holidays. It embraces the season.”

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