The happy moments of Christmas would not be as sweet if not for their contrast to unhappy times. Most Christmas recordings ignore this truth, but Robin and Linda Williams seize on it to make "The First Christmas Gift" a breath of fresh air in an overcrowded, cliche-ridden field.
Singing, on Steve Earle's "Nothing But a Child," of a newborn child guiding "a weary world into the light of day," the Williamses evoke both the weariness and the light in their country-folk harmonies. Backed by fiddler Sam Bush, mandolinist Jimmy Gaudreau and multi-instrumentalist Kevin McNoldy, the Shenandoah Valley couple also tackle a pair of black gospel hymns as well as hillbilly Christmas songs by John Prine and Roger Miller.
But it's on their four originals that the Williamses make their biggest contribution. The title track uses a singalong melody to make the case for Christmas despite the "crowded days on hurried shopping trips." "On a Quiet Christmas Morn" captures that eerie sensation on Dec. 25 when the world suddenly seems emptied of traffic and noise. "Shotgun Shells on a Christmas Tree," the tale of a family so poor that the young daughter picks up spent shells from a rabbit field to decorate an otherwise bare tree, will probably become a bluegrass standard.
-- Geoffrey Himes
Appearing Saturday at the Birchmere.