The Sweetback Sisters back innovative holiday song interpretations with one original on their new album, Country Christmas Sing-Along Spectacular. The buoyant collection deftly energizes favorites like “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” with country punch. Singer Emily Miller says the Brooklyn, N.Y.-based sextet enjoyed an appropriately spirited recording session for the album.
“I’d say it was pretty much the most fun record we’ve made,” she told CMT Edge. “It was ridiculously fun, actually. It’s kind of freeing to do something as a side project like this. When we make our regular records, we’re really trying to forge our way in the world of country music. I think with a Christmas record, you can let loose a little more.”
CMT Edge: Explain how this Christmas album came together.
Miller: For the last four years, we’ve been doing a Christmas sing-along, which we call the Country Christmas Sing-Along Spectacular. We started it on a whim and just did it in a couple of towns where we play a lot. It was a special thing for Christmastime, but it became one of the most popular events of our year. So, we started doing it in more and more townsm and finally we were like, “We really need to do a Christmas album. People keep asking us for it.”
Describe the song selection process.
Because we were doing this sing-along show, we were choosing a lot of songs that people knew and a few that would throw them for a loop. We wanted to keep the Christmas joy alive, and we didn’t want to make people work too hard, so we’d choose pretty common songs like “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town.” Then we arranged them in a raucous and jolly fashion.
Those arrangements became so fun that we kind of transferred the live show onto the record in a lot of ways, including the Jingle Cats tribute, “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.” That’s something that we worked up for the show and practiced the hell out of and then decided to put it on the record. It’s amazing how hard it is to do a hymn and [couple] it with meow sounds. You’d think other parts of the record would be harder, but that was the hardest part.
How did you go about putting your stamp on these songs?
I guess we weren’t going for making a lot of new Christmas music. We only put on one original song, but I guess our signature sound is the harmony singing and the rocking fiddle and Telecaster interplay. We tried to infuse that sound, which is what we’ve been working on as a band, into the Christmas stuff. That didn’t necessarily mean changing the melodies. It meant arranging the instrumental parts to make the elements come to forefront.
Tell the story behind that original, “9 Days of Christmas.”
Our fiddler Jesse Milnes wrote that one. We were on a long car trip, and I was falling in and out of consciousness in the passenger seat. The whole first half of that song came out of him fully formed. At one point when I woke up from napping, he said, “Hey, listen to this.” It was about a month before our Christmas shows last year, so we put it in the program, and people just loved singing that chorus — and so do I.
That Christmas song is exactly Jesse’s writing song. It’s not really a Christmas song. He writes a lot of songs for the band, and it has some elements of honest heartache and then funny parts, and he always says that’s just a drinking song set at Christmastime!
Was it a little surreal recording Christmas songs in July?
Oh, we had a really fun time in the studio. It was bloody hot in Philadelphia, so we cranked the air conditioning. Our producer scoured Philadelphia for Christmas ornaments and decorated the whole studio. We had Christmas cookies and the whole deal.
What draws you personally to Christmas music? People have strong feelings … .
It’s true. You feel like you’re going through a minefield with Christmas songs because people have such strong associations, even with specific songs. It’ll be like, “I love Christmas music except for ‘Frosty the Snowman’! I hate that song!” Me, personally, I have such great memories.
My favorite Christmas record as a kid was a Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver Christmas record I think was called Merry Christmas From Our House to Your House. I have such great memories of trimming the tree to that music and happy family memories, and Christmas music brings all that up. I think that’s exactly why a lot of people don’t like Christmas music. [laughs.] It can bring up the worst memories.
What’s your primary goal with the live show?
We try to bring a little bit of joy to it. I think the comment we get most often at our Christmas show is, “I hate Christmas music, but this was so fun!” I hope that we can get that reaction out of the Grinches of the world.
So, do you like to hear Christmas music in the stores while you’re shopping?
I do, actually. I like to hear Christmas music in the stores. There is a lot of schlock in the world of Christmas music, and I get a little tired of the syrupy, stringed arrangements of “Do You Hear What I Hear” or whatever, but as songs themselves, I think there’s a lot of good Christmas music out there.