Ever since its 1980s lineup returned to active duty in 2008, Exile has found itself facing an annual performance dilemma. In fact, it usually hits around this time of year.
“December used to be a wasteland,” said J.P. Pennington, guitarist, vocalist, songwriter and founding member of the longstanding Central Kentucky band. “The summers would always be busy, but we didn’t work any in December. So we finally decided to do a Christmas album and try to get some gigs to support it.”
That begins to explain the two-night engagement Exile will play this weekend in Renfro Valley. The shows will feature the expected library of hits the band chalked up for country radio between 1983 and 1989, which includes the No. 1 country singles “I Don’t Want to be a Memory,” “Give Me One More Chance” and “She’s a Miracle,” along with music from its new holiday recording, “Wrapped Up in Your Arms For Christmas.”
... we found we liked working together again, so we did a few shows and liked it even more. So it grew over the years to what it is now — a full-time reincarnation, reunion or whatever you want to call it. We’re the band you can’t run off.
J.P. Pennington, Exile
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Aside from helping the band with December bookings, the Christmas record constitutes the first full-length studio album (following a five song EP and a concert recording) since the ’80s lineup — Pennington, guitarist/vocalist Les Taylor, bassist/vocalist Sonny Lemaire, keyboardist Marlon Hargis and drummer Steve Goetzman — regrouped after a near two decade break.
“That first show we did together (in 2008) was a benefit for a friend,” Pennington said. “It was supposed to be just a one-off thing to help him out after which it was going to be, like, ‘Okay, see you all later.’ But we found we liked working together again, so we did a few shows and liked it even more. So it grew over the years to what it is now — a full-time reincarnation, reunion or whatever you want to call it. We’re the band you can’t run off.”
“Wrapped Up in Your Arms for Christmas” was recorded throughout 2015. Though completed in time for Christmas last year, there wasn’t enough time before the holiday season to find the record ample distribution or provide it proper promotion. So after selling it independently online, the band signed a distribution deal with Sony Music and released the album nationally in October.
“We started working on it in March of last year,” Pennington said. “It took probably ’til the end of October to get it finished. We had to do it piecemeal because we work on the road so much. We would be tracking a few songs in one studio, go out on the road, come back and track a few more in another studio.
“The biggest stumbling block for us was trying to figure out what we wanted to do and in what fashion we wanted to present the songs. But I guess in the end, whatever we choose to do musically was going to sound like us.”
There are still surprises on “Wrapped Up in Your Arms for Christmas.” In addition to three new original songs (the title tune, “Merry Christmas from Cancun” and “Bluegrass Kind of Christmas,” the record sports a version of “Children, Go Where I Send Thee.” The spiritual has been performed by legions of folk, gospel, country and bluegrass artists through the years. Pennington had long been aware of the song through his mother, Lily Mae Ledford, a member of the groundbreaking Appalachian roots group Coon Creek Girls — an ensemble that performed regularly at Renfro Valley as far back at the late 1930s.
We’re having fun and doing something that we feel keeps us young. At least it keeps us thinking young.
J.P. Pennington, Exile
“That song that’s been with me since I was a little boy,” Pennington said. “It’s really an old mountain-style song I remember hearing my mom and her sisters sing when I was growing up. It stuck with me, so I suggested it to the guys. I just sat down and played it on guitar. They felt like, and I agreed, that we should keep it as authentically Appalachian as we could. We just decided to do it with guitar and vocals and a little bit of percussion. It has 12 verses, but we decided on eight. That rounded it out to about three and a half minutes.”
While “Wrapped Up in Your Arms for Christmas” is helping Exile stay active on the road through the holiday season, is it an indicator that more new music may be forthcoming from “the band you can’t run off”? Pennington seems to think so. He says the band is tossing around ideas for a gospel recording or possibly an album of entirely new material. Mostly, though, he sees Exile’s classic lineup as a renewed working enterprise for years to come.
“There’s just a comfort in it,” Pennington said. “When you’re in your mid to late 60s, like us, I think the comfort factor plays more of a part than it used to. Thankfully, we’re still able to make a decent living at it. We’re having fun and doing something that we feel keeps us young. At least it keeps us thinking young.”