Diamond Rio has been topping the charts since 1991 with hits like “Meet in the Middle” and “One More Day.” The band went to lead guitarist Jimmy Olander’s basement studio to record their first Christmas album which was recently released on Word Records. The album A Diamond Rio Christmas: The Star Still Shines, has a distinctive sound because the musicians created their own arrangements to classic Christmas songs.
In an interview with CMT.com, lead vocalist singer Marty Roe talked about the songs they chose, stepping away from their ordinary style of music and the secret to making a unique Christmas album.
CMT: What songs did you personally choose?
Marty Roe: I probably picked more than my fair share, but the two that I definitely wanted to do were “The Christmas Song” and “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” which was something that I’d sing in my head a lot when we’re out on the road. We work quite a bit, and one thing I do know is that I am always gonna get to be home around Christmastime, so that’s good. And “The Christmas Song,” I love Nat King Cole’s version of that and just growing up listening to that. When I hear it, I know that Christmastime is near.
Did you guys decorate the studio for Christmas?
We did a little bit. We had some candles burning and some incense. When we first started this project, it was Christmastime last year and we cut a couple of things, and then in January we came back and tracked some more. But it kept working through February, March and April, and there were flowers blooming and it was getting to be 80 degrees, and we’re still working on Christmas material. But it wasn’t hard at all. I just really enjoyed the whole process the whole time. It never really felt all that weird really.
You have some jazz, some bluegrass and some traditional style songs. Why the collaboration of styles?
That’s really kind of who we are. We all grew up with slightly different backgrounds. Jimmy, Dana and Gene all grew up doing bluegrass music, so we had to do at least one thing like that, which is “Christmas Time’s a Comin’.” That’s a straight-ahead bluegrass hit, but the other stuff, “The Christmas Song” and “Christmas Time Is Here,” those songs were written and came from a much more pop background. We felt like we didn’t want to do something that was so country offensive. We would hope that our record in the CD changer would follow Nat King Cole or Amy Grant, and it wouldn’t be this brick-wall change. And to be quite honest with you, it was fun to get a chance to sink our teeth in that kind of style of recording. Dan Truman is a classically trained jazz pianist. That’s what his first love was. He fell right into it very well, and I had a lot of fun getting to croon on some of the stuff, giving my best Bing Crosby. We had fun to be able to step away from what we ordinarily do stylistically. It was very refreshing.
Did you feel you could be more adventurous musically on this album?
Most definitely. We had no preconceived ideas of what we wanted to do. We tried to stay in the tradition of each song for the most part. And the ones that we didn’t, like “Sleigh Ride,” were usually a pretty big orchestral-type production. We came up with kind of a “Gentle on My Mind,” put the banjo on it and gave it kind of a rolling feel through it. I thought it turned out great. And “Winter Wonderland” is from a similar place, kind of a ’60s, ’70s feel to it, of pop and rock ’n’ roll. It’s got a little Beatles influence and a little Beach Boys influence and obviously country in there. Whatever we do — and it doesn’t matter how far we try to stray — it ends up sounding quite a bit like Diamond Rio.
What is the secret to making a Christmas album that sounds distinctive or different than your typical Christmas album?
The main thing was, we just didn’t try to copy anybody else. We tried to make up our own arrangements. I think if you listen to it, song by song, when you first hear the intros to all these song, it’s very hard to have a clue what song you’re listening to, what’s coming up. The intro does not necessarily give it away, and the production of the song doesn’t necessarily give it away. But as soon as the melody starts, we didn’t mess with the melodies and tried to stay to a little bit of tradition in there.
I think the big thing for me that I think comes across is the true fun that we had doing this project. We felt free to do what we wanted to, to elongate the songs and play some cool solos and just try to capture the excitement of the season. I think that we did that. It feels good to me. After a year of listening to a project, any project we’ve ever done, usually it kind of goes on the shelf for me and I’m moving on to the next thing. Honestly, this one is actually in our CD changer with Nat King Cole and all that stuff, and so far I feel pretty good about listening to it. I don’t normally listen to myself very much, but I just really enjoy the production and just the feel of the whole album, and I hope that comes across.