With the 2020 holiday season comes a bounty of festive music straight out of Nashville. Stars across Music City have been getting into the holiday spirit with new Christmas albums, and while many offer sound renditions of the classics, they’ve also contributed their own perspectives with holiday originals. From a music legend to a bright newcomer, this collection of holiday tunes from some of Nashville’s finest provide comfort in their own unique ways during a time we need it most.
Dolly Parton (featuring Miley Cyrus) – “Christmas Is”
Dolly Parton has a monopoly on Christmas this year, and frankly, the world is better for it. When she’s not funding research for Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine, Parton is offering up her first holiday album in almost 30 years, A Holly Dolly Christmas. It’s the gift that keeps on giving, as the icon shares stellar covers of Christmas classics poised alongside a handful of Parton-penned originals that make the season bright, including the tender-hearted “Christmas Is” featuring her goddaughter, Miley Cyrus. During a tumultuous year, leave it to Dolly’s graceful nature to bring us back down to earth with a reminder of what’s truly important not only during this time of reflection, but all year round, with her message of kindness and the joy of giving over receiving. Her words are destined to bring a smile to your face – one of the many gifts from the national treasure that is Dolly Parton.
Best lyrics: “It’s all about kindness/Love and compassion/Better to give than receive/That is a true fact/But those who don’t know that/Well, they are the poorest indeed”
“Christmas is a time for caring/Being at your best/Christmas is a time for sharing/Knowing you’ve been blessed/Christmas is a time for giving/Love is made of this/That’s what Christmas is”
Ingrid Andress – “Christmas Always Finds Me”
2020 was a major year for Ingrid Andress. While her debut hit “More Hearts Than Mine” and corresponding album, Lady Like, scored the breakout star multiple Grammy nominations, Andress still managed to cut through the hype with the tear-inducing “Christmas Always Finds Me.” Backed by a piano and intimate string orchestra, Andress delivers a timely message for those feeling lonely this holiday season. The songwriter has a gift for visual storytelling, and these lyrics (co-written with Derrick Southerland and Sam Ellis) find her clinging to warm memories of the past that follow her wherever she roams the earth. Delivered with breathtaking vocals that speak right to the heart, Andress offers a message of comfort with this gentle holiday lullaby.
Best lyrics: “And even if I’m all alone/A million miles away from home/It shows up in warm memory/Another year older/Getting harder to believe/But somehow Christmas always find me”
Carrie Underwood ft. John Legend – “Hallelujah”
One can only expect greatness when two of the best singers in music team up for an original holiday song, and that’s precisely what Carrie Underwood and John Legend deliver on the gorgeous “Hallelujah,” which appears on Underwood’s first-ever holiday album, My Gift. The lyrics, co-penned by Legend, evoke beautiful imagery ranging from a choir of angels to embers burning bright, and one can feel the crisp winter-kissed air the Grammy winners sing of as their brilliant voices unite. The song is wrapped in a feeling of calm and serenity they bring to life on this cinematic number, all while offering a message of peace and hope that feels like a warm embrace. The video is clip from My Gift: A Christmas Special from Carrie Underwood which begins streaming December 3 on HBO Max.
Best lyrics: “Let there be peace on earth/Let the lonely join together, let them know their worth/Let the children know/There’s a brighter day ahead/Let’s hold on to hope/And on the coldest evening in this December/Let us pray the spirit of love will linger”
Dan + Shay – “Take Me Home For Christmas” and “Christmas Isn’t Christmas”
Quenching fans’ thirst for Christmas tunes, Dan + Shay offer a sugar and spice blend of holiday originals with “Take Me Home For Christmas” and “Christmas Isn’t Christmas.” The crossover duo, featuring Dan Smyers and Shay Mooney, offer a pair of festive songs that reflect the current time, juxtaposing the happy and the sad. “Take Me Home For Christmas” is a banjo-laden bop for new lovers spending their first holiday together, injecting the listener with a dose of Christmas cheer as the narrator beckons their partner to take them to their hometown where they established holiday traditions and memories. But Dan + Shay bring us back to reality with the pandemic-friendly “Christmas Isn’t Christmas,” the two serenading those longing for the person they love during a time when many are separated from family and friends on a holiday of camaraderie.
Best lyrics: “And those songs wouldn’t sound the same/Home wouldn’t feel like home/I’m thankful you’re here tonight/‘Cause all I know is/Christmas isn’t Christmas if it’s not with you”
Louis York ft. Jimmie Allen and The Shindellas – “What Does Christmas Mean”
Bust out those jazz hands – Louis York and The Shindellas shoobie-doobie their way into the holiday season with Jimmie Allen on “What Does Christmas Mean.” Originally released in 2017, the Grammy nominated duo of Claude Kelly and Chuck Harmony called on hit making country star Allen for a re-imagination of the track that finds them painting their ideal Christmas scene with snow on the ground and loved ones all around. Allen’s buttery-smooth voice and The Shindellas’ sparkling harmonies add flair to the already bouncy track, the three acts instantly igniting Christmas spirit the moment the song starts. But the real star of the show is the way Harmony tickles those ivories, creating a jazzy Christmas melody that’ll hit you in all the holly jolly feels.
Best lyrics: ”There’ll be snow on the ground/There’ll be lights in the trees/There’ll be love all around/But if you’re not with me/Tell me what does Christmas mean without you?”
This Is Noteworthy Founder and Chief Strategist of Community Development at BriteHeart Becca Finley is the visionary behind the series, born out of the original Harmony on the Horizon series that sees artists performing a virtual show from the comfort of their homes. Like many others around the world this year, Finley watched as people flooded the streets to make their voices heard. She took her own form of action by creating the musical narrative series filmed at The Caverns, a cave system-turned-renowned-concert-venue in rural East Tennessee, non-audience and socially distanced over three nights. With Go To Team Production behind the camera and a team of volunteers helping to coordinate the production, 18 musical acts all donated their time and talents to the cause that elevates stories through music and art.
My own role as part of the production and promotions team for the series provided exclusive insight into the vision and purpose behind the series; I worked alongside Finley to coordinate efforts behind-the-scenes for production, in addition to engaging in media outreach. But I also wanted to explore the creative side of this series, and what it means to trust in someone’s vision to create beauty and compromise, which in a way reflects our democracy. So I chatted with several artists and organizers to report the full scope of the poignant series.
Finley, who also directed and edited all of the shows, says the concept behind the Early Vote series evolved from a series of questions: “How can we put all the stories together in one place that protects and honors each one of the stories as individual stories that deserve to be heard? When we put them all together, how do we have one story that everyone can relate to in some way?” This was no small task, considering that the series features artists as diverse as Langhorne Slim, Lilly Hiatt, Kyshona Armstrong and Louis York. “You visually see a lot of different people who have a lot of different stories, but they are underlying, and they’re all people who live in and love our country,” Finley explains.
Described by BriteHeart Founder and Chairman Chase Cole as “the box set of all civic concert events,” he says the meaningful concept only furthers the organization’s purpose in being a civic motivator. “BriteHeart’s mission is to use the arts to increase civic participation. This series is the ultimate embodiment of that goal,” Cole expresses. “We’ve gathered diverse musical voices to speak their truths to a broad group of viewers who we hope will be inspired to vote and remain active in their community.”
The invisible thread that binds each component of the series is intentionality, beginning with Finley’s request that each artist submit ten original songs that she then turned into sets of six songs, each harboring a unique story that connects to the show before and after it, creating a metaphorical book of our nation. “It was a feeling,” Finley says of what drove the song selection process. “It’s really sitting with all of the music. It’s taking the time to first listen and feel it and then going through and really reading the lyrics and dissecting those; what was going to honor all of these people and these two organizations who dedicate themselves to civic engagement and to the overall health of the music ecosystem and how does all of it fit together.”
The series, which airs each night of early voting in Tennessee along with a pre-election show on November 2, launched on October 14 with a stirring performance by Armstrong, “the warrior who’s going to fight and stand up,” as Finley describes, followed by Gustavo Guerrero, a native of Honduras who shares his story as an immigrant in the United States, one who loves his native land as much as he does the one he now calls home. The genre-spanning lineup also features Lord Goldie, a Nashville native making honest hip-hop music in the country music capital of the world, her songs ranging from the forewarning “Icaraus” to a letter she wrote to her late father who passed away when she was 14; Becca Mancari, a rising force in the Americana and roots music world who turns her experience as a gay woman into soul-searching lyrics; and Mel Washington, who speaks candidly about racial inequality in America and his experience being homeless, simultaneously staring his obstacles in the face with the motivational mantra, “fail forward.”
These voices represent the genuine diversity at our nation’s core, a crucial element that compelled The Shindellas to sign their names to the series. The Nashville-based trio of Kasi Jones, Stacy Johnson and Tamara Chauniece, who will perform on the grand finale with their Weirdo Workshop counterparts Louis York on November 2, felt a sense of gratitude being part of the all-encompassing lineup. “[It’s] a story of empowerment,” Jones says on behalf of The Shindellas. “Seeing all of these different faces, but everyone has the same common theme of healing and community, it’s really empowering. It makes you feel like the world is presented as so crazy and chaotic, but when you look at these people here around us, they all have something in common as we do.”
The music is set against the equally awe-inspiring backdrop of The Caverns, the pure-spirited cause aligning with the meaning of the Sequoyah Cherokee script that The Caverns owner Todd Mayo had etched onto the cave doors: “Welcome to The Caverns where the great spirit brings all people together through music.” As a lifelong Tennessean, Mayo was inspired by the nonpartisan effort to motivate his fellow citizens to vote, which he cites as “one of the most American things you can do.” “America contains multitudes,” Mayo says, quoting Walt Whitman in reference to the series’ diversity. “I think that was celebrated on the Harmony on the Horizon series in all of those ways, and that’s really what I like, where I think the Harmony on the Horizon what they’re doing and what we’re doing at The Caverns, those entwined very easily together.”
Viewers will notice that in between songs, the artists share heartfelt reflections on a range of topics, some speaking about marginalized voices while others address mental health and unity. Prior to filming, the artists were posed with a series of questions inspired by their art, appearing strategically in the set as a compelling link between the songs and larger vision of the series. For SUSTO, his thesis statement centered around finding common ground with those who have differing viewpoints. The Charleston-based indie rock artist, who is a board member of This Is Noteworthy and one of the beneficiaries of the nonprofit’s healthcare grant initiative for touring musicians, notes that the marriage between the songs and the questions encouraged him to go inward, becoming “re-inspired” by his own work in the process. “That definitely lended for some deeper self reflection, and also figuring out what my piece is in all of this big drama of human existence, specifically here, at this moment in our country and what we’re trying to accomplish,” he says.
Like Mayo and The Shindellas, SUSTO was also inspired by the diverse lineup and honored to represent one piece in this “mosaic of stories.” “I think seeing that kind of variety in the artists speaks a little bit to what the democratic process is about,” he continues. “It’s hearing a bunch of different voices with different stories from different backgrounds come together in unity and sometimes agreeing to disagree, that’s part of it, and then sometimes just learning from each other. Being a part of this…I felt like a participant in something bigger.”
Oftentimes, being a part of something bigger than oneself involves trust, and epiphany that R&B soul singer Larysa Jaye let guide her through the atypical set and corresponding questions, aligning with the vision when she realized the connection between the songs and reflection points. “I was thinking how we need to have so much more grace and compassion and empathy for each other,” she says. “I think we can be so hard on each other a lot without knowing people, what they’re going through, what their background is, their mindset. We don’t have enough grace for other people to even have conversation.” Sharing these messages she in her show, she adds, “It’s important to keep conversations going, that’s how you grow. Each of our stories create who we are collectively. We all shape each other’s worlds and that’s why it’s so important for people to vote because if only one portion or one demographic is voting, your government’s not going to reflect your world.”
The Shindellas, too, felt they’d become part of a grander mission as they stood on stage in the center of the earth, beginning their set with songs of self-acceptance and community and ending with the proclamation that loving oneself without fear enables us to embrace one another and become a unified force. And when Finley concluded the set by inquiring about their thoughts regarding the intention behind the event, they realized the magnitude of what they are a part of. “Somebody actually asking me these very specific, deep questions, you have to put your thoughts to it and have an opinion and really use your voice, and it is very humbling. You feel elemental or you feel like this communication is what we’re supposed to be doing,” says Jones, again speaking on behalf of The Shindellas. “Because there’s so much representation and people are being asked questions that when you answer, you can’t really answer without a point of view, you can’t be neutral on the questions that we got asked. So in that way it reflects democracy, in that all voices are being heard. The concerts were set up saying, your songs matter, all that matters, but your voice matters.”
The message of “your voice matters” is the beating heart of what this series represents – a timeless message that remains true long after the election cycle is over and encapsulates the profound element that unites us all: humanity. “What matters is the process. What matters is that we all chose to show up for each other. What matters is that we cared enough about our country and people’s voices to represent them and try,” Finley proclaims.
“I feel like on the whole, we want to be led and represented by people who care about us, by people who want to serve us, or people who have our personal best intentions, but also the best intentions of our nation at heart. I feel like this process was an exercise in that. It’s an exercise in leading and in compromising and paying attention and working together with all of us, with our democracy…It’s about using our voice. It’s taking the time to listen and figure out for yourself what is the story that each one of these people is telling and what is that thread. But I think if you really go through it, the thread for me that connects them all, it’s love of our country, but it’s the belief in humanity and it is that we’re all curious, and when we take the time, we all have the ability to listen and to be compassionate. And if we are willing to remove our ego,” Finley concludes, “then we have the ability to empathize and recognize a piece of ourselves in every other story.”
Watch the Harmony on the Horizon Early Vote Concert Series now via BriteHeart Live on YouTube. Donations are being collected for the artists through This Is Noteworthy’s PayPal Giving Fund, with a portion of the proceeds also benefiting The Caverns and This Is Noteworthy’s artist grants program.
A “griot” is defined as an oral storyteller in West Africa, the roots of the tradition tracing back centuries. Nashville-based duo Louis York not only bring this tradition into the modern era with their debut album, American Griots, but prove they’ve long been griots themselves.
The journey begins with Claude Kelly and Chuck Harmony, Grammy nominated songwriters and producers who spent more than a decade writing era-defining pop hits (Kelly wrote “Party in the U.S.A.” by Miley Cyrus and Bruno Mars’ “Grenade,” while Harmony penned Rihanna’s “Russian Roulette” and produced Ne-Yo’s six-time Grammy nominated album, Year of the Gentleman). After breaking away from the grind of the mainstream music industry, they created Louis York and launched their own artist collective, Weirdo Workshop, in Franklin, Tennessee (just outside of Nashville) in 2017. Deriving their namesake from Kelly’s native New York and Harmony’s home city of St. Louis, Louis York introduced themselves as a genre-defying act with an important message to share on a succession of EPs: 2015’s Masterpiece Theater – Act I, 2016’s Masterpiece Theater – Act II, and finally, Masterpiece Theater – Act III, released in 2017.
But with the turn of the new year in 2019, the duo knew it was time to create a comprehensive body of work in order to evolve, setting their sights on a debut album. As they began writing songs and developing themes for the impending project, Kelly and Harmony discovered the word “griot” – a traveling musician, poet or performer who would visit the villages of West Africa and share stories of the people and culture through art. “That part really resonated with us because it felt like there was an ancestral tradition to why music and soul music and this mission will always feel so familiar,” Kelly tells Audiofemme. “That was a beautiful thing to embrace.”
The album reflects a tapestry of the experiences, frustrations and lessons they’ve gathered through their journey, reclaiming the griot’s mission of transforming valuable life lessons into art that not only entertains, but instills education, intellect and spirituality. “We’re asking more questions than we’re giving solutions,” Harmony says of the project. “The songs go different places and take on different twists and turns in ways that I think a lot of people now don’t think fans and consumers can take, but we don’t buy that. We know that music has always been adventurous and progressive and fun and poetry, that’s what we fell in love with when we first came into it,” Kelly describes. “These are all soul songs, each one is kind of a realization for us.”
Louis York called on a team of Nashville griots to help them share these realizations. Caroline Randall Williams, an award-winning poet and co-author of NAACP Image Award winning book Soul Food Love, opens the project with her “piercing” voice, as Kelly notes, on an original poem that proclaims over a groove of horns and drums, “this, an American story / a fists up story / an our power story.” Her moving words take shape again on the reprise of “Teach Me a Song,” the duo’s duet with country star Jimmie Allen, while The Shindellas, the powerhouse trio founded under Weirdo Workshop, follow in their footsteps on “No Regrets.” The ’80s style electro-funk melody doesn’t disguise the uplifting lyrics that encourage self-love and personal freedom, and The Shindellas’ glistening harmonies shining alongside Kelly’s voice as they declare, “I want the world to know / you don’t have to be alone / we don’t have very long / so love anyone you want.” “That part was an important message, so we chose to repeat it over and over again so it could be drilled in people’s heads,” Kelly says.
For Harmony, the album’s profound identity lives in “I Wonder.” Originally released on Masterpiece Theater – Act I as an eclectic R&B number titled “Nerds,” Louis York give the song a new identity on American Griots. Inspired by hymns and Negro spirituals, “I Wonder” intertwines spoken word poetry, jazz, hip-hop and R&B to ponder how Civil Rights pioneers Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X would perceive the world today. The almighty voice of opera singer Patrick Dailey unites with Harmony’s cinematic production of strings and booming drums to elevate the compelling notion, “I wonder / if Martin was alive now / would he be proud? / I wonder / if Malcom was alive now / would he be proud?” “It’s such a vital part of our social message and it’s a missing part musically in pop culture,” Harmony explains. “It feels like it’s encompassing all of what African Americans have contributed artistically to pop culture, and still sounds futuristic,” Kelly remarks, calling Dailey’s presence a “stand alone moment.” “We wanted to feel reverent, but we also wanted it to feel like it was the best of who we are.”
The griot tradition is in capable hands as Louis York continue on an artistic journey that finds them channeling expression, attention to detail, honesty and true musicianship into their craft. These elements reward them with a true sense of freedom, the liberating gift they pass on to those who embrace American Griots. “With us spilling our guts and pouring our hearts on this album, we’re hoping that listeners will have a revelation, which is deeper than inspiration,” Kelly says of the most “complete” body of work they’ve created in their careers. “This album is also a reminder to them that this is what freedom can sound like. Now take that same feeling and apply it to yourself.”
“The only thing that we can offer people is love and happiness and having fun and being introspective. But at the end of it is love,” Harmony observes. “That’s what the world needs.”
When pressing play on “Costume,” the new single from up-and-coming trio The Shindellas, it’s as much a journey as it is a song.
The genre-blending act of Kasi Jones, Stacy Johnson and Tamara Chauniece begin by transporting us back in time to the 1960s with a spirited introduction that offers glimmers into each woman’s personality: Stacy is mean on the bass, love is Kasi’s middle name and Tam can sing like the best of them. They share these idiosyncrasies over a melody that captures the cinematic sound reminiscent of iconic groups like The Supremes and The Chiffons. But just as you’re reveling in this throwback sound, the beat drops, transforming into a slick R&B jam.
Written and produced by Grammy nominated songwriters and producers Claude Kelly and Chuck Harmony, along with former American Idol contestant and Grammy Award winner Tori Kelly, a close ear to the lyrics reveal that the infectious melody surrounds a powerful message that encourages self-acceptance and the freedom to walk in one’s truth, the trio’s glistening harmonies lifting up such inspiring words, “All we want is love / all we got is us / baby that’s enough / let me see the real you / ain’t gotta wear your costume tonight.”
Kelly and Harmony are co-founders and CEOs of Weirdo Workshop, a Nashville-based artist collective that produces The Shindellas and their own work as groundbreaking duo, Louis York.
Listen to Audiofemme’s exclusive premiere of “Costume” and read our interview with The Shindellas below.
AF: What was your reaction when you first heard “Costume”?
SJ: It’s a really fun song, it’s got a fun beat. It’s one of those songs that I feel like everyone can sing along to. It’s uplifting, it feels like a party song.
KJ: The blended styles, it literally feels like a party song from the ’20s and also from the future, it really is theatrical. It plays with a lot of different parts of our voices, it was like all of us could really sink our teeth into something.
AF: What are listeners going to learn about you through this song?
SJ: They’re going to learn our names, they’re going to know what we bring, our perspectives, we talk about that. And they’re going to learn about this different movement and be encouraged to join that movement and be a part of it, just women singing together about that kind of thing. I don’t think it’s a new thing, but it’s just an encouraging thing that they’re going to learn, encouraged to be close with your sisters and empower your sisters around you.
KJ: It starts with all of our playfulness. We actually introduce ourselves on the song, but I think it’s the most direct of our songs in terms of our actual messaging like self-love, self-respect, self-worth. “You are allowed to be yourself without fear” is our mantra and this song is just talking about being authentically you, and that’s what we are creating. It’s an anthem to all the weirdos.
AF: What do you want listeners to take away when they listen to this song? What message are you trying to convey and how do you hope it impacts them when they hear this song?
KJ: I hope people really feel that we’re embracing everyone’s most authentic self; that you are allowed to be yourself without fear and that that’s what we’re about. I also hope people will hear the song and want to come see it. I hope it reaches through the speaker and then makes them feel like they’re a part of something, like “I can turn this on when I’m feeling lonely or when I need that boost.”
AF: In the context of this song, how do you define the word ‘costume?’
SJ: It means to put on a persona. It can be a literal persona. It could be something as literal as makeup to saying you’re okay when you’re not okay. A costume is something that you’re using to guard yourself. But I feel like we’ve learned when you’re vulnerable, when you’re transparent, that is when people can really empathize and understand you and fall in love with you. So we’re asking everyone to take off their costume, whether it be makeup or it be something that you might find a flaw that you might be hiding and it could be somebody’s encouragement, somebody’s inspiration.
KJ: It makes me think of when we did our Tiny Book Club [an initiative through Weirdo Workshop] on passing and that sometimes your costume is how you pass. You wear a costume to your corporate job or you wear a costume with your family or we have different personas like [Stacy] said or costumes that we put on and maneuver through life. But like we talked about in that conversation, can you be really free if you’re constantly passing? We want people to be free.
AF: One line that stood out to me is “We’re The Shindellas, we’re truth tellers.” How do you define “truth teller?”
TC: I think that a truth teller is someone who understands that you’re flawed, but they are a work in progress, and they are all about sharing that journey with whomever will listen. I think for truth tellers, they just want the truth to be the reality, so they’re willing to basically put themselves and their truth on the line to actually bring in more people so that the truth can actually be the one thing that prevails.
AF: So how do you, The Shindellas, feel that you are truth tellers? What truth are you hoping to share with the world?
KJ: The universal truth. We’re ones that love is and always will be our north star.
SJ: In our music so far that we’ve put out has been nothing but some pretty serious topics wrapped in bubbly sounds and cool harmonies. But a lot of the words and lyrics are honest experiences that we’ve had that, like [Tamara] said, want to share. Our music is a huge reflection of our truth telling.
AF: Do you feel like your truth is reflected in “Costume”?
The Shindellas: Absolutely.
KJ: We all feel like costumes.
SJ: Stacy feels like her Jamaican roots are in “Costume” somehow without even having to force it or make it something that’s super prominent. It feels very real and true in the music.
KJ: That’s so true. I can hear all of the movie musicals that are what made me even want to be a singer and an actor. All those movie musicals and all those vocal performances in the intro and the bridge, that’s my grandma, it’s my childhood, what made me want to even play this way.
TC: I can totally hear my gospel roots because I feel like the entire song we’re testifying. We’re literally preaching but in a way that doesn’t sound so preachy, it actually sounds fun, so it’s a really weird juxtaposition. It’s kind of like what [Kelly and Harmony] coined a “deep fried veggie,” it’s such a fun beat and you kind of don’t even recognize that there’s such an awesome message in it until it’s over and you’re like “wait a minute, what was this experience?” That’s what I really love about it.
AF: Another big mantra for you is “when women come together, powerful things can happen.” How do you feel that you all have become more powerful since coming together?
SJ: For me personally, I’m inspired by these two women. Because we’re going through this together, every time they choose to be their truest self or to speak their truth or to face their fear, it encourages me to do the same. It’s been a magnifier for us. Also, I feel like I’m able to have a bigger voice and reach more people because we’re together and it’s still the same message that I would have been doing by myself, but now I have my sisters and more people can see themselves in us, so we’re able to reach so much more. We’re magnifying our words and our songs and our message by being together.
TC: I think that through this experience, I’ve become more powerful because now that I know that I have two women that are depending on me to be my best self, that is something that causes me to constantly self-reflect and constantly look in the mirror and make sure that I am being my best self when I’m with them because I know that we’re the most powerful when we’re all operating at our maximum potential. Knowing that I now have accountability buddies, it just makes for an incredible journey.
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