‘Tis the season. And if you can get by this CD’s creepy-Santa cover, Switchback serves up some tasty cuts of good cheer on A Very Switchback Christmas.
“Away in the Manger” keeps drawing me back to this 2005 recording by Martin McCormack and Brian FitzGerald. I don’t know if they ever have done such a straightforward, unadorned song. Brian’s mandolin offers no frills or trills. Marty’s voice comes from the second row in the choir. To me all that sounds just right.
For many children raised in Christianity, this song was our first sacred carol. No Frosty or Rudolph or bells jingling. For all the powerful beauty of “Silent Night” and its “dawn of redeeming grace,” the manger song is written in simplest language with nary a three-syllable word. It’s not only composed for children but also speaks from the perspective of a child, in one verse asking Jesus to “stay by my cradle till morning is nigh.”
For all these reasons, Switchback performing “Away...” with Brian’s clear notes and Marty’s plain vocal is just the way to convey its youthful observations and to reveal its childlike awe. While many carols speak of Heaven's love for us, this tune declares directly, “I love Thee, Lord Jesus.”
Bob Dylan, another Midwestern singer-songwriter with a Christmas album under his (wide, gold-buckled) belt, was asked about his recent recordings, about “covering” Sinatra and such. He said the idea of recording some old familiar songs was not to cover them, but to uncover them and let us hear their essence. Articulate guy, that Dylan, and a pretty good description of what Marty and Brian are doing with this tune.
One last “Away...” note: I’ve heard it’s Brian’s favorite holiday song.
A Very Switchback Christmas delivers other presents, to be sure. You can learn the origin of “Silent Night,” catch good harmony and jazzy picking on “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town,” or enjoy “Oh Holy Night” in Irish tenor style. And you heard it here first: There’s a rumored second Christmas-season record coming in 2019.
P.S. Switchback has put together a playlist of their favorite Christmas tunes by a variety of artists (including their version of "Away in a Manger") for you to enjoy. Listen here.
Doug Kamholz is an itinerant washboard player who has freelanced for the New York Times, Washington Post and many lesser media. His most honest work was as a pig farmer in central Illinois, where he now lives and occasionally makes dinner for Switchback.
American Roots & Celtic Soul