Williamson Branch’s “Very Merry Christmas”

Three generations of music making are represented in the five members of Williamson Branch, but there’s more. Those three generations understand the breadth of bluegrass history and how to best utilize the style as a viable modern musical vehicle without losing its initial spirit. The five-piece family outfit has five studio collections to their credit and their latest, Very Merry Christmas, is the group’s third release for renowned bluegrass label Pinecastle Records. Mixing traditional Yuletide music with original compositions on the same theme doesn’t break new ground, but Williamson Branch’s bluegrass treatment of those traditional Xmas songs has its own spirit and you’ll hear it in each note.

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The title song opens the release with a familiar musical identity. Williamson Branch easily achieves the classic bluegrass chemistry that keeps listeners coming back for more year after year. The chemistry they share as family members is likewise clear in the music and they weave a seamless tapestry born from countless hours of musical interplay. It is safe to assume that Williamson Branch’s recorded output is an infinitesimal fraction of the music the group has created together for years.

It has a brisk pace and signature elements such as banjo, a stutter in the fiddle playing, and impeccable vocal harmonies. Some of those qualities continue making their presence felt during their traditional reinterpretation of the classic “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen”. Williamson Branch, however, find their own twist on the standard contrasting a slow, near-ominous opening with a far more uptempo second half. The vocal harmonies, once again, are outstanding. It likewise affords them opportunities to shine individually.

Williamson Branch keeps setting the bar high with a blistering medley bringing “Christmas Times A-Comin’” with the ever popular “White Christmas” recast as breakneck bluegrass. The group never sacrifices any nuance, however, and their playing skills shine as bright as ever. “Good Tidings of Great Joy” has prayer-like qualities in song and its effervescent sparkle burns with added luster thanks to some of the album’s most exquisite vocal harmonies.

“Children, Go Where I Send Thee” is an album highlight. The dazzling multi-part acapella harmonies are eyepopping from the outset and the group shows gripping chutzpah serving up such fare in 2022. It works, however, without a doubt. Williamson Branch are unafraid of embracing a traditional style and master it without ever sounding too reverential. Bluegrass is a living thing to them, not a butterfly trapped under glass for their study.

The album’s penultimate track is a light-hearted change of pace. “Grandpa’s Reindeer Revenge” is a clever original “sequel” to the classic “Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer” that meanders along at a likable pace and generally cops the same melody to pleasing effect. It illustrates the well-rounded nature of Very Merry Christmas – Williamson Branch’s foray into this niche genre is more than just a seasonal release, it’s a fully-realized musical and songwriting work. It’s worthy of bluegrass’ rich history and also plants its feet firmly in today with respect to its crisp sound and first class instrumental skill.

Chadwick Easton

Music

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