Monday, November 20, 2017

Artist Interview: Russ Hitt

With his new 2017 release "The Longing for Home: Songs for the Holidays", Nashville musician Russ Hitt complements his 2014 release "The Longest Night: Christmas Songs of Lament & Longing" (reviewed here) with another visionary exploration of Christmas music coupled to an emotional spectrum.  This time, Russ moves from the fragile partnership of darkness and hope that was the thematic foundation of "Longest Night" to a multi-faceted journey through the dimensions of "home" with "The Longing for Home".

With five original songs and five interpretations of classic carols, Russ brings forth feelings of wistful nostalgia, wishing for a home faraway or perhaps simply hoping for a place to call home, and the gentle comforts of one's own home, complete with a crackling fire and the sounds of the wind blowing snow outside in the cold Winter night.

As a musician, Russ has a special talent for expressing emotion in his music.  His work is not highly-produced pop, as is so prevalent in each Christmas season's new releases.  Instead, it is created with intent, as an artisan craftsman hand-makes each individual piece.  For me, Russ' two albums occupy a special and unique place in my personal Christmas music collection.

Russ very graciously gave Merry and Bright a very thoughtful interview about "The Longing for Home", his musical influences, and some hints about what might be yet to come.


Merry and Bright Interview with Russ Hitt

Merry & Bright:  Hello Russ!  Thank you for taking time to share some insights about your music with Merry and Bright.

Russ Hitt:  Absolutely...thank you for the opportunity!

MB:  This year you’re releasing your second album of Christmas music, The Longing for Home: Songs for the Holidays, following your excellent 2014 release The Longest Night: Christmas Songs of Lament & Longing.  Share with us the story of these two albums – where does your artistic drive toward Christmas music come from?

RH: Well as long as I can remember I've always appreciated the different seasons of the year.  As a kid I especially loved the Christmas and holiday season's “feel” with all of the decorations, colors, smells...the whole sensory part of it all.  But there's also another reality to the holidays which isn't idealistic or warm & fuzzy that gets overlooked.  These aren't mutually exclusive for most people so I feel it's important to acknowledge both in my music.

MB:  Both of these albums are very thematically strong, focusing in on defined aspects of the holiday season that are outside of the bright colors and sleigh bells that we normally associate with Christmas music.  The Longest Night focused on the sadness and loneliness that can accompany the season, symbolized by the long, dark nights of Winter, but wrapped in hope.  With The Longing for Home you aim toward our emotions about “home” – nostalgia, the missing comforts when away - that are at their strongest during the Christmas season.  Tell us about your artistic vision for The Longing for Home, and how the album came about.

RH:  The Longest Night felt really out of the box and a very important work to pursue.  It was pretty vulnerable for me to put out there.  And I may come back to more of that in the future because it wasn't something I just did to get out of my system, so to speak.  But for the new project that became The Longing for Home, I wanted to explore the idea of “home,” especially around the holidays, and what it may look and feel like at different points in life through different perpsectives, ages, and circumstances.  It was definitely challenging to cover the range of emotions and feelings I wanted to capture.

MB:  Why do you feel that exploring the full spectrum of our feelings and emotions through Christmas music is important?

RH: I think people bury and suppress a lot of their feelings, especially during the holidays.  With so many illusions of idealism, it can be fraught with opportunity for anxiety, stuffed feelings, and a loss of self which is obviously the exact opposite of what the season's supposed to be about!  I want my music to help us be more honest and hopefully recapture the child-like wonder.  And maybe that can help us offer ourselves some kindess and compassion during the Christmas season...then hopefully extend the same to others.

MB:  Both of your albums have original songs as well as your arrangements of some standards.  How did you select the classic Christmas songs to include on these albums so that they become part of the spirit and flow of each record?  And, what is your process to interpret and arrange the standards so that they are a thematic fit in the album?

RH:  That's a fantastic question!  I look through a variety of songs and sit with the music...just the lyrics for messages I may have previously overlooked.  If you get still you can often find a hidden gem or poignant phrase in a lesser known verse of a carol that sticks out and speaks to you.  Then I study the chord structure and look for progressions around the original melody that feel right for what I want to convey.  I never want to veer too far from the original melody so it's always recognizable but the chords around the melody can go wherever.

MB:  As a fan of many musical genres, especially (and obviously) Christmas music, I sometimes hear an album that, to me, sounds like it is exactly what the artist envisioned, a perfect representation of what they imagined as they worked through the production.  David Bowie was brilliant in this respect – delivering albums of amazing cohesion and message that welcomed the listener into the music.  I felt this way after listening to The Longest Night for the first time.  And now, The Longing for Home delivers a similar musical experience.  Now that The Longing for Home is ready for release, do you feel that the final product is an album consistent with your vision?

RH:  I'm very humbled and grateful you were able to hear that in my albums.  It means a lot to me.  Thankfully, I really do feel the album stays true to the original vision.  Throughout the process it's important to keep coming back to check in and make sure the integrity of the vision is still there.  But I do feel like every song in this project does its part to contribute to the collective vision.

MB:  “Refugee”, with the crackling of the fire and the sounds of the wind, is one of my favorites from The Longing for Home .  Tell us the story of “Refugee”.

RH:  Yes, I incorporated ambient sounds on both Refugee and also Finding My Way Home to help listeners go somewhere in their imaginations.  For “Refugee” I couldn't help but consider stories and images of the Syrian and Rohingya people (Myanmar) crises. 

Then there's also a “refugee of the heart”, so to speak, where a person may appear to have everything externally but is lost, lonely and isolated inside. 

I would like to add that a portion of this album's proceeds will go to UMCOR (link added by MB) where 100% of all donations go to various natural and humanitarian disasters that have left people without a home here in the United  States and abroad.

MB: That's very generous of you, and I hope it will inspire our readers to give back during this holiday season.  I've included a link to UMCOR following this interview.  So Russ, who are some of your musical influences?

RH:  A few of my better known influences over the years include Sting, Bruce Hornsby, Tom Petty and John Mayer.  I've recently been listening to Bill Evans...a fantastic jazz pianist from back in the 60's and 70's.

MB:  Here’s one of my standard interview questions:  Do you have a favorite Christmas song or album? 

RH:  That's a tough one but if I had to choose it would be The Charlie Brown Christmas soundtrack.  I never tire of it.  To me, nothing sounds more like Christmas than that!

MB:  I know that after all the work to create and release a new album you’re probably ready for a breather.  But, is there another Christmas record in store in the future?  Do you have other themes you want to explore with a future Christmas album?

RH:  Yes, I feel confident there is another Christmas record in store.  I'm just not sure whether I want to go deeper with either theme of my first two albums or explore a new area...or maybe a combination of all three.  But I can say I'm already itching to write again as I had an idea just last week that I need to log so I don't forget!

I'm definitely going to need a break as I've been been juggling everything that has to happen to successfully launch a project as well as post-launch for over a year.  I also have to say I'm thankful and grateful for my family as they have been very patient and supportive along the journey.

MB:  To wrap things up, is there a message you’d like to share with our readers about your new album?

RH:  Yes, I think this album is very versatile, almost chameleon-like, in that it can be everything from great dinner party background music to a calming companion in rush hour traffic to helping someone get in touch with their feelings and emotions throughout the holidays.

MB:  Russ, thank you so much for your time.  You’ve given us Christmas music fans two deeply thoughtful albums of wonderful music.  Have a very Merry Christmas, and best wishes to you and your family!

RH:  Thank you so much for featuring my music and the opportunity to go deeper with some great questions!  Merry Christmas to you and yours as well!!

 UMCOR (United Methodist Committee on Relief) website
"The Longing for Home" on Bandcamp
Russ Hitt Music website
Russ Hitt on Facebook
Russ Hitt Bandcamp Site

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Sofia Talvik: When Winter Comes

Ah, Sofia Talvik.  What can one say about Sofia Talvik?  Y'know, I could make a great blog post with just pictures of Sofia.


But that would be unfair and an injustice, as Sofia Talvik's talent as a complete musician - singer, songwriter, guitarist -  exceeds even her beauty.

Sofia has long been a darling of Christmas music fans around the world.  Oh, Sofia has not limited herself to Christmas music, oh no.  She has an extensive catalog of records, a songstress of the highest caliber. One could classify her as 'folk', and one wouldn't be wrong.  One could say "Americana", and it's there, though you must add Swedish-tinged to it, as Sofia hails from Sweden.  Really, just say "she sings her songs".

Over the years Sofia has graced us many times with Christmas songs, original compositions, many free, as Christmas gifts to her fans.  This year Sofia has collected her songs, re-worked and re-recorded them, added a new original and, for the first time, a standard, "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day".  She has arranged these into a true album, a representation of her relationship with Christmas, and the joy and sorrow that can come with the holiday.

The result is beautiful.  The dues she has paid as a traveling, touring, working musician pay off in a truly special musical maturity.  She sings and plays with unprecedented confidence and control, and shares her Christmas music from her heart and soul.  Her voice has a purity, with just a hint of Scandinavian inflection that adds a touch of exoticism, that is stirring.  "When Winter Comes" is undoubtedly one of the top Christmas albums of 2017.

My good friend Stubby has long been a champion of Sofia Talvik and her music.  In fact, I'm pretty sure that it was via Stubby that I first learned of Sofia.  Many of you know that Stubby is putting his House of Christmas on indefinite pause.  As a (possibly) last post, Stubby has written an in-depth review of "When Winter Comes" over at his place, and I can't touch the eloquence and love for her music that comes through in his review.  If this is Stubby's swan song, then there can be no more fitting way to exit the scene for a Christmas blogger we all heartily admire.  So, please visit Stubby's for his review.  Well done, my friend.

So. hopefully I've piqued your curiosity, and Stubby has delivered the whole message:  support Sofia Talvik, buy her music, love it this season and for many seasons to come.

Sofia Talvik website
Sofia Talvik music
Follow Sofia on Facebook

A CD of "When Winter Comes" was provided by the artist to Merry and Bright for review.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Christmas Reading: "The Triple Dog Dare" by Joanna Wilson

Each year when Halloween passes and November 1 comes, several things happen in the Bingle house.  I start playing Christmas music on the record player when the rest of the family is around (instead of listening privately, as I do every year in the months of January-October).  I more diligently begin detailed planning for my annual Christmas compilation CD (yes, I still burn CDs).  I start looking for the necessary fixins for the annual fruitcake baking later in November.  And I start my Christmas reading.

I love Christmas reading as much as anything during the holidays. Novels, stories, poetry, and works of non-fiction all make my reading list in a given year.  There are a few annual traditions I've settled into, such as reading Truman Capote's "A Christmas Memory" every year on Thanksgiving morning, accompanied by the peace of the sleeping household and a cup of freshly brewed coffee with a touch of cream.

Most of my reading, though, is new to me, be it a classic Christmas story or a new work.  This year, I chose "The Triple Dog Dare: Watching - & Surviving - the 24-House Marathon of A Christmas Story" by Christmas TV journalist extraordinaire Joanna Wilson to kick off my holiday reading season.

In "The Triple Dog Dare", author Joanna tells her account of watching the modern classic film A Christmas Story for 24 hours straight, simulating the annual broadcast on TBS that has become a part of so many of our Christmas Eves and Days.  Twelve straight viewings.  Twelve showdowns with Scut Farkus.  Twelve times Flick stuck his tongue on the pole.  Twelve "Fa Ra Ra Ra Ra"s at the Chop Suey Palace.  Twelve "Oh Fuuuuuuudge"s (but he didn't say "fudge").  What would happen after the marathon?  Would she love the movie even more?  Would she never want to see it ever again?  Would she still be sane? 

These questions and many more are answered in this delightful and completely engaging book. Joanna explores the reasons why this movie has become so beloved, and why it is uniquely suitable for the 24 hour marathon broadcast year after year, which plays in to the reason so many major advertisers buy commercial time during the event.  She gives us many details about the cast, including connections beyond the film and some "where are they now" info.  We are treated to a cornucopia of tidbits about the film, production, location, and other miscellany.  Perhaps I knew, but had forgotten, that Bob Clark also directed "Black Christmas" the 1974 film.  I did not know until reading this book that Mr. Clark has a cameo in the film.  It's things like this, the details surrounding the film, that make the book such a joy.

But that's not all.  Joanna tells about her staging of the marathon - a re-creation done in February with a VHS tape of the movie recorded from television in 1989.  (We understand that viewing the entire marathon as it's broadcast live would be a serious detriment to enjoying the holiday, and really just not feasible for a Christmas lover).  An unexpected bonus of traveling back in time to television circa 1989 was the neo-vintage commercials that were fortunately not excised from the recording.  Joanna's accounts of these commercials, many for products and services that have ceased to exist, added significant joy to the reading experience.

Christmas Television History Expert Joanna Wilson
There is no unnecessary play-by-play of the movie.  Many scenes are referenced and used as inertia to explore an angle, a nook, or a cranny about the film, the viewing experience, the social and collective tradition that has developed since the marathon began, or other tangents and fascinating offshoots.  If you, like me, love the movie, you'll find much to love in Joanna's book.  It's a guarantee that you'll relate to some or many of Joanna's observations and experiences, and you will assuredly learn something new about A Christmas Story.  

While I'm at it, let me give a thumbs-up to Joanna's other Christmas-related books, "The Christmas TV Companion", "Tis the Season TV", and "Merry Musical Christmas Vol. 1".  The first two of these have suddenly become enablers for me to spend way too much time in front of the TV, looking up previously unknown (to me) TV episodes, film shorts, cartoons, and so on.  Thanks to Joanna I'm discovering Christmas entertainment that I didn't know existed, and it's wonderful.  Thanks Joanna!

Joanna Wilson, in addition to publishing books about Christmas visual entertainment, also runs the excellent blog Christmas TV History and keeps an active social media presence via Tis the Season TV and Triple Dog Dare on Facebook, as well as on other social media platforms.

1701 Press website
The Triple Dog Dare on 1701 Press
Christmas TV History

Monday, November 6, 2017

2017 Preview and Thisbe Vos Kickstarter

Hello and Happy November everyone!  Welcome back to another season of Christmas nerdery here at ye old Merrie and Bright blogg.  This post is to welcome you all back, to give you a little preview of what's in store this season, to share a quick news tidbit, and most importantly to encourage you to help crowdfund a new record from one of our absolute favorite musicians.

So, welcome back!  (check - done)

For long-time readers of Merry and Bright you'll see similar Christmas goodies in 2017 as in years past.  I'll be doing some reviews of Christmas albums and introducing you to artists that aren't in the mainstream but produce some darned fine music.  I have two artist interviews lined up already, a third pending, and perhaps a couple more will come along in the next month.  And, as always, I have a great set of vintage, out-of-print music to share out for you to enjoy.  I managed to get way ahead of the album-ripping game this year (whew!).  I have all of the records ripped, almost all of the audio processing done, and a good start on the cover scanning and stitching.  And it's only November 6th!

Beyond that, who knows what you'll find here.  You can guarantee it'll be in the holiday spirit, that's for sure.  I hope you like what you read, and if you do, leave a comment! 

Quick news tidbit:  I'm returning to the radio again this year.  Believe it or not, the hosts of River Trade Radio on KKFI in Kansas City invited me back for a special hour of Christmas music from my collection.  And,  the FCC was ok with that  :-)  So on Sunday December 3rd at about 9:15AM Central Time you can hear a little of me and a lot of great Christmas songs.  I'll post more info about that closer the day.

Ok, now for the important message.  You may recall Thisbe Vos from previous posts here.  The first was a review of her amazing Christmas record in 2015, and then her interview with Der Bingle last season.  Now, Thisbe has a new project, and she needs crowdfunding support via Kickstarter to achieve her goal.  Thisbe is making a "Romantic Valentine's Day Jazz Album", with her renditions of jazz standards fitting the occasion, plus several original songs.  Now, Thisbe is not only an amazing jazz singer, she is a truly gifted songwriter.  I've been endlessly impressed with her ability to write a new song and have it sound like a standard.  If you haven't heard Thisbe, visit her at one of the links below and listen to this talented young jazz artist.

On her Kickstarter page, Thisbe details her plans for the albums and describes the costs to make the record, including the breakdown of the funds.  She has quite a chunk of the funds allocated to the musicians that will be recording with her, which makes me want to support her even more.  Earning a steady, decent wage can be challenging for those who dedicate their lives to making music, so I was very glad to see that the Kickstarter will support not only Thisbe, but also her band and collaborators. I pledged to support her new record right away, and I hope you will consider signing on as a supporter. Even if jazz music isn't your thing, maybe you know someone who would love a CD from Thisbe.

So, please take a minute to check out her Kickstarter page.  Der Bingle thanks you.

Thisbe Vos Kickstarter Site
Thisbe Vos website
Thisbe on Facebook

Well, that's it for tonight - I hope you visit Merry and Bright many times this season.  Happy holidays!

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Vintage Recipes!

I found an old Betty Crocker recipe booklet while sifting through my Mom's many, many collected recipes (I found about 9 different variants of fruitcake, one of which is a no-bake version held together with graham cracker crumbs, orange juice, and melted marshmallows, then frozen in a tube) and thought you might enjoy the seasonal ones.  There isn't a date on the booklet, but I'm guessing it's from the 1960s.  


Sugar Plum Dreams:

And two Dickens-inspired recipes:


Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Feelin' like Christmas...

Hello all!  Yawn, stretch, jingle, jingle, jingle...  it's starting to feel just a tad like Christmas.  There's not really a nip in the air yet, but there's a Fall-like feel here in Kansas City today, and it is of course officially Autumn now (why do we have two name for this season, but only one for the rest?  Ever wonder that?) so around my place Fall means that we start listening to some Christmas tunes, sorting through the new/old records and CDs, and planning the annual Christmas comp.  I know, I know, many of my collector friends have been planning their comp for months already.  I always have a running list and jot potential songs to it from time to time, but the real planning doesn't start until Octoberish each year.  Just my M.O.

So, I'm encountering a new phenomenon here recently, one that's quite welcome.  A few days ago, and old buddy pulled up at my house to pick me up to go to a Wilco concert, and he came bearing a sackful of old Christmas records he got from his mother.  Quite a nice selection, too.  Some may be shared out here later in the season.  Then, the next day, I traveled to my sister's place down in Tennessee, and upon arrival she had a stack of old Christmas records for me, finds from estate sales.  What a thing - people giving me stacks of Christmas records!  I guess all that incessant posting on Facebook about Christmas music is paying off :-)  Anyway, it's a cool thing.  Add in my Omaha daughter scouting the used record haunts up there looking for Christmas records and my Kansas City kids letting me know about albums they've spotted, and I have quite a network going.  Maybe it'll turn into inventory for that Christmas music store I'll open up when I retire.  Won't make a dime in profit but the in-store music will be great!

Well, stay tuned here folks.  The blog is warming up for another season.  I have some artist interviews already lined up, and will be talking up some new album releases, including (I hope) one from a fantastic local band.  Plus, all the usual stuff you find here at Merry and Bright.  It's Beginning To Look a Little Like Christmas! 

I decided to include a few album pics too, just to jolly up the place a bit.  Enjoy!

Wednesday, August 23, 2017


My house in Kansas City was within the path of totality ("totality" - the Word of the Year 2017), so I got to enjoy the event from my deck.  Here are a couple pictures, taken with my iPhone, of the eclipse during totality.  The pics aren't great, but do show the light-ringed black ball in the sky.  I was trying to take the pics quickly and then just enjoy the view for as long as it lasted.  Anyway, here's the view of the great eclipse of 2017 from my backyard!