How’s this for a Christmas miracle? Phil Vassar recorded his new holiday album, Noel, in a single day! Even so, it still sounds as vibrant and full-blown as if Santa himself had handled quality control.
Noel succeeds in striking a balance between the somber and festive aspects of the holiday via a song list that ranges from “O Come All Ye Faithful” and “What Child Is This” to “Big Ol’ Texas Christmas” and the uproarious “Santa’s Gone Hollywood.”
Included as well are the standards “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” and “Merry Christmas Darling.”
Vassar co-produced the project with longtime friend Dane Bryant. It was the first time the two had worked together, he says, since their student days at James Madison University.
Prior to making Noel, the only Christmas music Vassar had recorded was “Let’s Make a Little Christmas Tonight,” a song that appeared on an anthology of holiday tunes released by his former label, Arista Nashville. He rerecorded it for the new album.
“Honestly, I got the record together in about two or three weeks,” Vassar explains. “I called Dane and said, ’I’ve got a one-week window in September. Have you got a couple of days off? Let’s do it.’ And he said, ’OK.’
“We got together and started going over some cover songs. And then we had this little musical idea, which is the first song [on the album], ’Doesn’t Feel Like Christmas Without You.’ He started doodling around on it, and I put it on my iPhone and wrote the words to it on a plane the next day.
“’Big Ol’ Texas Christmas’ and ’Santa’s Gone Hollywood’ we wrote right before the record. Juli [Cole] and I had written ’Let’s Make a Little Christmas Tonight’ a few years back. We needed one more [song]. So I wrote ’I Saved Christmas’ the day before we cut the record.
“We cut it all in the studio in one day. I sang all the songs the same day. I didn’t have to do overdubs or vocals or anything. … We went in really prepared. It’s so much fun when you’ve got great musicians like that. There’s nothing that can’t be done.”
Vassar turned to a rising Texas artist, Kellys [pronounced KELL-us] Collins to vocalize with him on “Away in a Manger” and drafted Asleep at the Wheel’s Ray Benson to chime in on “Big Ol’ Texas Christmas.”
Although a native of Virginia, Vassar used to live in Texas and says he loves the state. After co-penning “Big Ol’ Texas Christmas” with Jeff Smith and Billy Alcorn, the singer knew there was one additional element he needed to really drive the song home.
“I said, ’Man, if I could get Ray Benson to sing this thing with me, I would just have a heart attack,'” Vassar says. Risking inflicting a coronary, Benson sang his part of the song at a studio in Austin and sent it back to Nashville.
Vassar was just 5 years old in 1970 when the Carpenters scored with “Merry Christmas Darling.” But he regards it as one of his favorites.
“I’m a huge Carpenters fan,” he says. “Richard Carpenter [who co-wrote the song with Frank Pooler] is a great piano player and arranger. And nobody can sing better than [Karen Carpenter could].
“I thought, ’I’m not going to try to do the song because I think I can do it better, but I’ve never heard a guy sing it from a guy’s point of view. Scrolling through all the Christmas songs that I loved, it just kept coming back to me.”
For those who love clever, bouncy, Frank Loesser-tinged lyrics, “Santa’s Gone Hollywood” will steal the show. Co-written with Tim Nichols and Jeff Outlaw, the song chronicles Santa’s Lucullan lifestyle on the Left Coast after he wins the Powerball lottery:
He’s got no bills, blue pills, he’s hung up his sack
Mrs. Claus is lookin’ hot, she’s even got a new rack
She’s been nip-tucked, liposucted and tightened up good
Yes, Santa’s gone Hollywood
Vassar says he and his co-writers had to resist the temptation to put too many current references into the song.
“It was hard not to go real current,” he explains, “like with some of the stuff going on with some of these reality shows. I wanted to, but I decided it would be a little too right-now.
“Yeah, it’s got a lot of words in it,” he concedes. “That’s always been my motto, you know. If it seems like it’s got too many words, add more.”
The fact that Christmas albums have a notoriously brief sales period didn’t bother Vassar.
“Maybe you just sell it for a month [each year],” he observes, “but you sell it for a month forever. You know how many copies of the Nat King Cole Christmas album I’ve bought over the years? I’ll bet 50.
“But all that aside, I just wanted to make a Christmas record.”
Well, he can check that one off his holiday list.