Critic's pick: John Fahey, 'Christmas Soli'

Contributing Music WriterDecember 16, 2013 

To this day, I find no holiday album more inspiring and refreshing than the landmark 1968 solo guitar recording by John Fahey, The New Possibility.

It took 16 familiar carols and transformed them into meditations draped in folk and blues tradition, accentuating the spiritual context of each in the same way Fahey did on his astounding Blind Joe Death recordings. What resulted were songs we all knew by heart but offered in stark, wiry and often eerily restless solo settings that made the music sound ancient but somehow rooted in Americana.

Fahey, who died in 2001, went on to record several other holiday albums in the same style and, for the most part, the same solo guitar setting. Each of them provides fascinating listening, but all pale next to The New Possibility. The new no-frills compendium Christmas Soli samples four of those records.

The first five tunes come from The New Possibility and have a fascinatingly antique sound. Usually this kind of music reflects specific geographic (usually rural) accents. Not here. The guitarist tosses in blues references and enough folkish reverence to make Joy to the World and We Three Kings of Orient Are sound like products of the Old West. The performances are otherwise as unspoiled in their presentation as their influences are indefinable. Fahey never imitated anyone. It was always the other way around.

Beginning with three subsequent tunes of 1975's overlooked Christmas With John Fahey, Vol. 11, the creases in Fahey's playing and arrangements began to smooth out. Although a duet version of Carol of the Bells with Richard Ruskin sounds streamlined compared to The New Possibility, there are wonderful, wiry twinges and sudden, subtle twists of melody and tempo that provide such familiar carols with generous folkish invention.

Three more songs take us to 1982's Christmas Guitar, Volume One, which offered re-recordings of much of the material from The New Possibility. The makeovers provide a smoother and more patiently paced ride, but the rustic, ageless quality of the original album is lost. Ditto Christmas Soli's final three entries, which are duets with guitarist Terry Robb (from 1983's Popular Songs of Christmas and New Year's), a lighter, simplified but still playfully inventive session.

Collectively, it all makes for a quiet but powerfully moving take on holiday music devoid of pop intrusion and commercially generated sentimentalism. There is simply no finer listening as the pre-holiday hoopla fades and the brilliance of Christmas itself takes hold.

Read Walter Tunis' blog, The Musical Box, at LexGo.com.

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