- - Monday, December 1, 2014


Martina McBride, Darius Rucker and Lady Antebellum are just a few of the country artists that have put their own perky marks on classic holiday tunes.

Turn on many commercial radio stations this season, and it won’t be long before you’ll hear merry versions of “Jingle Bell Rock,” “Santa Baby,” “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer” or some other sonic holiday chestnut. Even in the best of times, the songs tend to grate as the season chugs along. Add in a family death, job loss, illness or some other personal loss and they’re downright vexatious.

That’s not to say that Over the Rhine, the Ohio-based duo with the angel-voiced singers and virtuoso musicianship, is a study in seasonal sorrow. But they present a more, let’s say realistic, view of the winter holidays than many other artists.

“When you’ve been in the music business 25 years, it’s important to play music you believe in,” said Linford Detweiler, who, with Karin Bergquist, is the folk duo Over the Rhine, named for the Ohio area from which the two hail. “We feel we represent ‘Reality Christmas.’ In fact, we cornered the market. It’s important to remember that the holidays are not an easy time of year for many people.”

The majority of the nine tracks on the album were written by Mr. Detweiler and/or Ms. Bergquist, occasionally with other co-writers. A notable exception is their heartfelt cover of Merle Haggard’s classic “If We Make It Through December.”

In keeping with the sorrowful points in Mr. Haggard’s song, the tunes on Over the Rhine’s latest release cover topics ranging from the perils of traveling to family holiday gatherings (“Blood Oranges in the Snow”) to the death of a parent (“My Father’s Body”) to the commercial offerings that stir extra sorrow into already sad seasons (“First Snowfall”).

But for all the melancholy of the songs, there are bright spots, including “New Year’s Song,” that includes the lyrics: “Let’s stay home and play old records/Our future’s bright, our past is checkered/What do you say we lift a glass/Toast the ghost of another year past.”

It’s easy to scoff at an album that doesn’t embrace the holy, jolly tones of traditional seasonal offerings, but Over the Rhine’s “Reality Christmas” is akin to a luxurious salve for those of us — likely many of us — that think we’re alone as we review failed opportunities and losses during this supposedly joyous season.

And those that attend the duo’s concerts, as I did in Nashville, may well feel a swelling kinship with both artists as they interject wry humor and commentary into their sets.

“We try to write songs that are about the important parts of all of our lives,” said Ms. Bergquist as she and Mr. Detweiler sipped beverages and discussed their holiday music while sitting in a Nashville hotel restaurant. “We hope they find we express feelings and thoughts that they haven’t heard articulated before.”

Over the Rhine with special guest Carolina Chocolate Drops’ Dom Flemons, Tickets, $25-$28, 8 p.m., Wednesday, Dec. 5, The Barns at Wolf Trap, 1635 Trap Road, Vienna, Va. 1-877-WOLFTRAP; www.wolftrap.org.

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