This week’s Billboard Holiday 100 list of the most popular seasonal songs doesn't have many surprises. The big Christmas hits from Mariah Carey, Andy Williams, Gene Autry, Frank Sinatra, Burl Ives and Wham! are all there. Most of us know them by heart. But if you’re ready to expand your playlist and put some bluegrass, Irish trad, European carols and fingerstyle guitar in the mix, here are 10 holiday tunes picked just for you by Acoustic Routes Concerts and Ashley Grebe, artistic director of The Saline Fiddlers Philharmonic.
Ricky Skaggs & Kentucky Thunder – Christmas Time’s a Comin Live at the Grand Ole Opry. The bluegrass legend has won 15 Grammys so far and his Skaggs Family Christmas concerts always feature this holiday classic made famous by the late Bill Monroe in the 1950s. Ricky Skaggs & Kentucky Thunder are headlining a benefit for The Saline Fiddlers at the Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor on May 25.
Don Messer and His Islanders – Jingle Bells. Messer was a Canadian bandleader and radio star whose 1960s-era TV show was the most popular program on the CBC next to Hockey Night in Canada. You can stream their entire Christmas album here.
The Osborne Brothers – Christmas on Rocky Top. The hillbilly anthem “Rocky Top,” sung by University of Tennessee football fans after every Volunteers touchdown, was this brother act’s biggest hit. But long before that 1967 record, they were bluegrass innovators, incorporating harmony banjos, steel guitars and drums into the genre’s traditional mix.
The United States Navy Band – Dueling Jingle Bells. Senior Chief Petty Officer Keith Arneson on banjo and Petty Officer 1st Class Joe Friedman on guitar showed impressive chops at the Navy band’s 2015 holiday concert.
Eileen Ivers – Do You Hear What I Hear? Grammy-winner Eileen Ivers has been called the Jimi Hendrix of the fiddle by The New York Times. She has more than 80 recording credits, including the soundtrack for the Martin Scorsese film Gangs of New York staring Daniel Day-Lewis and Leonardo DiCaprio.
Nefesh Mountain – Woody Guthrie's Hanukkah Dance. Woody Guthrie, the father of American folk music and writer of “This Land Is Your Land,” also wrote several Hanukkah songs while living in Coney Island, New York. This version is from Nefesh Mountain, a husband and wife duo mix traditional Bluegrass and Old-Time music with Jewish heritage and tradition. The great Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, Tony Trischka and David Grier lent their talents to the group’s new record Beneath the Open Sky.
Dan Crary – The Little Drummer Boy. Dan Crary challenged bluegrass convention starting in the 1970s when he showed the potential of flat-picked guitar as the lead instrument. Since then, he expanded the world of the steel string guitar to include Mozart and Anglo-American fiddle tunes, including his classic Holiday Guitar album.
Bonnie Rideout, Al Petteway and Maggie Sansone – Rorate (Nativity). Saline-native Bonnie Rideout is one of the most acclaimed Scottish fiddlers in the world and she mined some of the most ancient and beautiful Christmas melodies ever written for this landmark CD featuring Grammy-winner Al Petteway on guitar, Maggie Sansone on hammered dulcimer and Eric Rigler (the piper on The Titanic and Braveheart soundtracks) on bagpipes.
Duck Baker – What is This Lovely Fragrance. This lovely arrangement of the French carol comes from The Salutation, fingerstyle virtuoso Duck Baker’s collection of European carols arranged for solo guitar. The selections include universal favorites, some tunes which are popular in their native lands and reasonably well-known elsewhere, and others which are unfamiliar even in their homelands.
Sharon Shannon (accordion), Liz & Yvonne Kane (fiddles) and Jim Murray (guitar) – Tommy People’s Jigs. While not necessarily a holiday-themed set, this session was filmed during the Christmas season at Campbell's Tavern, Cloughanower, Co. Galway in 2008. The tunes were written by acclaimed Donegal-style fiddler Tommy Peoples who passed away this year.