Polly Maynard and Dave Randolph put their toes in very risky water when they got together to make The 12 Daze of Christmas.
After all, folk humorist Garrison Keillor wrote a column for Salon.com titled “Don’t Mess With Christmas.”
Christmas is a serious business. In fact, the only business more serious than Christmas is Christmas music. Need verification? Hop on Amazon.com, search for the names of any pop band or artist you can think and the word “Christmas,” and zip to the customer reviews. A slow death has been wished on purveyors of high-quality, jazz-styled holiday standards.
Disaster was averted, though, by Maynard’s inexhaustible creativity and musicianship and the savoir-faire of musician and producer Dave Randolph.
The 12 Daze of Christmas by Polly and the Pear Tree Partridges is sweet without being saccharine, energetic without being noisy, and cheeky instead of self-indulgent.
“We spent a couple of weeks talking about it,” said Randolph, a core member of Maynard’s Miss Polly and Her Tiny Big Band. “We knew we wanted to do some kind of seasonal album. At one point, we talked about doing a Halloween record. We settled on Christmas.”
Maynard used the core members of the Tiny Big Band and then assembled the best musician for each section of every song.
“That’s really how we did it,” Maynard said. “We looked for the best musician for each song. We did it a song at a time. When we were working on a song that needed a horn section, we started asking each other who the best horn players in town are.”
The lineup of talent is nothing to sneeze at. Grammy winners Bubba Hernandez and Jeffrey Barnes, a bassist and clarinetist, respectively, did studio time. Grammy winner Danny O’Brien brought his trumpet to the project. Cirque du Horror creator and trombone man David Pierce stepped in.
There were musicians who have heaps of admiration in Denton’s music scene but maybe don’t have the same name recognition: banjo player Gerald Jones; versatile drummer and closet comic Joe Cripps on the spoons; handy local bassist Dave Shaw. Bone Doggie, a guitarist, bassist and Irish bouzouki player who’s blazing up the music scene with the Hickory Street Hellraisers, lent his raspy vocals and verve to the project as well as designing the album art.
Watson also played a wild card who alternately charms and scandalizes Denton’s music scene: Richard Haskins.
“We had several musicians who backed out on us at the very last minute. Like the 12th hour,” Maynard said. “I just talked to Richard and asked if he knew of any punk rock songs for Christmas. You know, with people in the background yelling ‘ho! ho! ho!’”
Maynard said Haskins couldn’t think of one. So he wrote one. With a chorus of people shouting “ho! ho! ho!” in the background.
“We wrote and recorded that song in one day,” Maynard said.
“It was a fun day,” Randolph said.
Watson, who began her career in Denton as a rare female graduate from the University of North Texas guitar program and a sensitive, musical classical guitarist, began writing music for children when she had twins about six years ago. As her girls, Sylvia and Amelia, have grown, Maynard has made a musical hybrid of quality kids’ music and musical theater with a dash of vaudevillian mugging. It’s all in good fun, and the musicianship is solid.
In fact, it was the general bad quality of children’s music that spurred Maynard to write songs around playful lyrics. The album opener, “Are You Ready?” captures the Christmas experience of very young children — the strangeness of “wooden people on my lawn” and the puzzling practice of hanging stockings. It was written probably four years ago, as was “The Christmas wRAP” (a song about a rapper who can’t wrap gifts to save his life.
As a result, Maynard has drawn a crowd with the age diversity usually reserved for local polka band Brave Combo. The album release party packed the patio at Sweetwater Grill & Tavern. Hangers-on gathered outside of the patio, too.
Maynard tipped her hat to Randolph, who produced, recorded and engineered nearly every song in his Starr Sound Studio in Corinth.
“Something that’s very peculiar to me is that, for a lot of musicians, the last thing they think about are the lyrics,” Maynard said. “We really focused on the lyrics, and making sure they tell the story and everything else supported that. Dave is good at building an architecture that is really clear and then making everything else you bring in support that.”
Randolph tried to deflect the compliment and claim keen editing chops.
“What she means is that I’m good at throwing out entire verses of songs,” he said.
Not every song made the record. They axed a Hanukkah song written in klezmer style because, Randolph said, “we couldn’t pull it off.” A few Christmas ballads on the piano were dropped because they ran out of time. In the end, the album includes the punk number, “Christmas Jinx (Ho Ho Ho),” a metal song that’s gotten enthusiastic crowd response, “Your Name,” silly story songs, “I Saw Santa Meet the Tooth Fairy” and “Get Up, Santa!”
Only one Christmas standard made the record: “Greensleeves (What Child is This?).” Maynard plays it once on lute, again on guitar and then she gave the floor to Gerald Jones, who played “Bluegreensleeves.”
“None of these songs were novelties,” Maynard said. Each style was honored musically, even if the lyrics were deliberately comedic.
“As a classical musician, I don’t do covers because I don’t feel like I really have anything else to offer,” she said. “All this Christmas music has been done so much and by so many musicians, I’m like, ‘What can I offer that someone else hasn’t already done?’”
Randolph said the recording process was more fun than work. Randolph’s family members provided their voices, as did Maynard’s daughters. Even Maynard’s husband, Barry Watson, stepped in.
“Dave was doing ‘Christmas wRAP,’ and I kept telling him ‘It needs to be more Snoop Dogg!’ And he’d tell me, ‘That is my Snoop Dogg.’ Barry came in with his half glasses and watched what he was doing and said, ‘I can do that.’ He did great!”
Randolph and Maynard have a book’s worth of funny stories from the project. One in particular stands out. When they were working on the record, Barnes lived a few houses down from Randolph. When he came over to record clarinet phrases, Randolph said, “Jeffrey must have brought 400 pounds of metal things to hit — including a saw blade and something his dad found out in the oil field.”
“We he took it out and spread it all out on the floor of the studio, you couldn’t walk,” Randolph said. “The wonderful thing about Jeffrey is that he can find great ways to use these things.”
Maynard laughed at the memory.
“You know what Jeffrey didn’t bring? He didn’t bring the clarinet,” she said. “I made him go home and get it. Can you imagine? Me telling Jeffrey Barnes to go home and get his clarinet? He was great. We had so much fun.”
LUCINDA BREEDING can be reached at 940-566-6877. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org .
WHERE TO GET IT
The 12 Daze of Christmas by Polly and the Pear Tree Partridges is available on iTunes, Amazon and Spotify. The album is also available at Recycled Books Records CDs on the downtown Denton Square and at CD Baby by visiting http://bit.ly/RD4cVl .