For fourteen years, a group of stars from the East (that is, Nashville) led the way for local kids of all ages in search of the Christmas spirit with their annual live performances of A Charlie Brown Christmas by the Vince Guaraldi trio. Rolling stone mistakenly chose the 1965 television soundtrack album as the fourth best Christmas album of all time, when it is clearly the best Christmas album of all time.
If those times were normal, the band – keyboardist and frontman Jen Gunderman, bassist James Haggerty and drummer Martin Lynds – would be in droves for the fifteenth year, at the 3rd & Lindsley and the Belcourt Theater. The sacred liturgy would begin, starting with the gently swaying “O Tannenbaum”, passing through the iconic triad riff of “Linus and Lucy”, the singing snowfall of “Skating”, the audience singing to “Hark The Herald” (Oh my, I have something in my eyes) and the plaintive conclusion, a divine jazz arrangement of old English song “Greensleeves”. The performances, which each time feature a special guest soloist to provide an impromptu surprise, blend the mastery of Music City and childhood memory like nothing else.
This year’s Ornaments shows will play out in the on-screen fashion we’ve become accustomed to in 2020, but with ambitious production values. Three different performances will air, starting this weekend, from Michael Weintrob’s East Nashville Photography and Video Studio, as part of his ongoing series. Live instrument head. Weintrob and Gunderman collaborated on a professionally lit and touring affair, featuring a psychedelic Christmas ensemble and grand piano. One-off shows take place on Saturday mornings at 10 a.m. (a replacement for the annual Belcourt kid-friendly ensemble), followed on December 23 and 24 at 6 p.m. Guest musicians will respectively be pedal steel player Pete Finney, saxophonist Jimmy Bowland and Christmas Eve legendary Nashville studios cat Charlie McCoy on harmonica.
This happy annual noise actually originates in a period of mourning. Jen Gunderman, keyboardist and pianist for Sheryl Crow and many other stage and studio projects, says that in 2004, she suddenly lost her father on Christmas morning. When the anniversary popped up a year later, it was tough, and the tumble coincided with a tour with US band Last Train Home.
“And someone had put the Vince Guaraldi Charlie Brown Christmas soundtrack in the van. And we all agreed that it was the best Christmas music ever made, ”Gunderman said Thursday. “And I casually mentioned that I had sheet music for that. And I was like, Oh, we should jam on this someday. It would be fun to play some of that music, because I realized, at that point, that it was the first kind of Christmas oriented thing that didn’t make me feel really bad. Without hesitation or warning, band lead singer Eric Brace called Family Wash owner Jamie Rubin pitched the concept and landed the gig to Gunderman whether she really wanted it or not. “And so, we had to pull ourselves together and do it!” “
It all started small, around a shepherd’s pie and pints in old Family Wash, in the heart of East Nashville. By the time the club moved to a larger venue on Main Street, the Ornaments were an institution, playing multiple sets over many nights. When this room closed they again moved to the 3rd & Lindsley Great Room. Gunderman believes their seasonal record is 21 iterations. More valuable than frequency has been the community and intergenerational connections built around one of the few albums almost everyone is familiar with.
“I realized that at one point it’s kind of like the Grateful Dead where audiences kind of make their own traditions around music,” Gunderman said. “There are companies that organize their end-of-year celebrations there. There are people who always wear their ugly Christmas sweaters like crazy in a group. When we play at Belcourt, parents kind of let their kids run forward. And so every year there is this kind of children’s sinkhole. They go crazy, and it’s hilarious. We’ve seen kids grow up coming, you know, since they were babies. And so those are the kinds of things I think I think about. “
And she thinks of her father.
“My North Star with it all has always been that it was a tribute to my father,” Gunderman says. “So it was a transformational thing for me, because it helped me overcome the heartache. And it also made me realize how a specific type of music can also be instrumental in overcoming grief. ”