- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 15, 2005

Every year as the holidays approach, one thing is certain in the music world: Christmas albums and lots of them.

The template is often the same: Pick a few holiday classics, add a full orchestra and try to out-croon Bing Crosby. It was those Christmas-album stereotypes that made singer-songwriter Martin Sexton want to try a simpler approach.

“I wanted it to be sort of an easy listen, something you put on while sitting next to a big fire,” he says on the phone from his home in Northampton, Mass. “I didn’t want to be the star. The point is to just be the soundtrack to one’s holiday.”

The album is “Camp Holiday,” recorded in a cabin in the Adirondack Mountains near Lake Placid, N.Y., with just Mr. Sexton, an acoustic guitar, a few family members and percussion stolen from the kitchen (i.e. a cookie tin and spaghetti strainer).

The feel is that of having a talented friend with a guitar sitting next to your fireplace as he plays stripped-down versions of such classics as “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” “Little Drummer Boy” and “Silent Night.”

Hear him play his own work — and a few Christmas songs, too — when he begins a two-night set Wednesday at the Birchmere in Alexandria.

Mr. Sexton was born in Syracuse, N.Y., but cut his musical teeth in Boston, playing coffee shops and showing off his wide vocal range, which can switch quickly from bass to a falsetto. Since the early 1990s, he has released six albums, two for a major label, and founded his own independent record company, called Kitchen Table Records.

“Camp Holiday” is the second album he has released on his own, following in the footsteps of 2002’s live CD “Live Wide Open.” Though his normal material tends to take full advantage of his wide vocal range and is split between folk rock, soul and blues, he turned things down a notch for the Christmas album.

On “Silent Night,” Mr. Sexton was able to bring three generations of his family together. His father, Thomas J. Sexton Jr., added his deep, majestic voice, and his daughter Briana brought what Mr. Sexton describes as an “angelic” sound to the familiar tune.

“It turned out to be a special little moment,” he says. “I still get chills listening to it.”

Another unique moment is the lone original on the album, “Welcome to the Camp.” The quirky, upbeat rock number came as an accident after he realized he needed one more song for the album and was feeling a little tired of carols in the summer.

“Whether it’s Christmas or old Hanukkah, Kwanzaa or Chinese New Year or whatever,” he sings, “Welcome all you people / come and gather around / feel the vibration of this holiday sound.”

The laid-back approach to music had some unintended results, he says. A close friend complimented him on his technique of pausing before a verse on one of the carols. He was amused to point out that it wasn’t technique, but his unfamiliarity with the words that caused him to pause before singing.

Mr. Sexton’s fans will be pleased to hear that he is in the writing stages for a new, non-holiday record that he hopes to have ready by next fall. The bare-bones approach of “Camp Holiday” has been a strong influence on how he plans to proceed, as he liked the intimate, personal feel he managed to bring to the album.

“It’s like the difference between a pair of old beaten-up blue jeans and one pair fresh off the rack,” he says.

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Listening to Julie Lee’s brand of country can be a bit like listening to a musical version of American history. Not only does her sound harken back to the early bluegrass roots of country, but the subjects she sings about often fill one with nostalgia for an older, simpler time.

On the title track to 2004’s “Stillhouse Road” album, the Nashville artist delves into her family’s history to explore the nation’s prohibition past.

“I doubt the moonshine / was used for communion wine / back on the stillhouse road,” she sings. Other songs explore the legacy of Sojourner Truth and the simple joys of corn bread made from scratch.

A Maryland native who was born in Baltimore and grew up in Catonsville, she put out three albums on her own before releasing “Stillhouse Road” on an independent label to great acclaim last year. Associated Press called it the “most overlooked album of the year,” and though Miss Lee’s profile may not be as high as that of similar acts such as Alison Krauss (for whom she has opened), it’s only a matter of time before that changes.

Hear her open for Last Train Home Saturday night at the Iota Club and Cafe in Arlington. Those in the Christmas spirit should request “Beautiful Night,” written about her childhood memories of the season.

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