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Webcasts Mark 15 Years Of The Ornaments, Christmas Joy With Roots In Loss

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For fourteen years, a band of stars from the East (Nashville that is) has guided the way for local kids of all ages seeking the Christmas spirit with its annual live renditions of A Charlie Brown Christmas by the Vince Guaraldi Trio. Rolling Stone mistakenly selected the 1965 TV soundtrack album as the fourth best Christmas album of all time, when it is clearly the best Christmas album of all time.

Were these normal times, the band - keyboardist and leader Jen Gunderman, bass player James Haggerty and drummer Martin Lynds - would be packing in crowds for the fifteenth year, at 3rd & Lindsley and the Belcourt Theater. The sacred liturgy would commence, beginning with the softly swinging “O Tannenbaum,” through the iconic triad riff of “Linus and Lucy,” the lilting snowfall of notes in “Skating,” the audience singalong on “Hark The Herald” (Oh my, I have something in my eyes) and the plaintive conclusion, a divine jazz arrangement of the old English carol “Greensleeves.” The performances, which feature a special guest soloist each time to bring improvisatory surprise, mingle Music City mastery and childhood memory like little else.

This year’s Ornaments shows will go on in the screen-based manner to which we’ve become accustomed in 2020, though with ambitious production values. Three different performances will stream, starting this weekend, from the East Nashville photography and video studio of Michael Weintrob, as part of his ongoing series Instrumenthead Live. Weintrob and Gunderman collaborated on a professionally lit and shot affair, with a psychedelic Christmas set and a grand piano. The one-off shows happen Saturday morning at 10 am (a stand-in for the annual Belcourt kid-friendly set) followed by Dec. 23 and Dec. 24 at 6 pm. Guest musicians will be, respectively, pedal steel player Pete Finney, sax player Jimmy Bowland and on Christmas Eve, the legendary Nashville studio cat Charlie McCoy on harmonica. 

This joyful annual noise actually has its origins in a spell of grief. Jen Gunderman, keyboard and piano player for Sheryl Crow and many other stage and studio projects, recounts that in 2004, she lost her father suddenly on Christmas morning. When the anniversary loomed a year later, it was hard, and the downer coincided with a tour with Americana band Last Train Home.

“And somebody had put on the Vince Guaraldi Charlie Brown Christmas soundtrack in the van. And we were all agreeing that it was the best Christmas music ever made,” Gunderman said on Thursday. “And I mentioned offhandedly that I had some sheet music for it. And I was like, Oh, we should jam on this sometime. It would be fun to play some of this music, because I realized, at that moment, it was the first sort of Christmas oriented thing that didn't make me feel really terrible.” Without ado or warning, the band’s lead singer Eric Brace speed dialed Jamie Rubin, owner of the Family Wash, pitched the concept, and landed Gunderman the gig whether she really wanted it or not. “And so then we had to get it together, and do it!”

It started modestly, over Shepherd’s pie and pints in the old Family Wash deep in East Nashville. By the time the club moved to a bigger room on Main Street, the Ornaments were an institution, playing multiple sets over many nights. When that venue closed, they moved again to the large venue 3rd & Lindsley. Gunderman thinks their seasonal record is 21 iterations. More valuable than the frequency has been the community and the intergenerational connections made around one of the few albums that nearly everyone knows well.

“I realized, at some point, it's kind of like the Grateful Dead where like, the audience just sort of makes their own traditions around the music,” Gunderman says. “There are companies that will have their holiday parties there. There are people who always wear their like crazy ugly Christmas sweaters as a group. When we play the Belcourt, parents sort of let their kids run loose down front. And so every year there's this sort of like a kiddie mosh pit. They go crazy, and it's hilarious. We've seen children grow up who have been coming, you know, since they were babies. And so those, those are the kinds of things I think I think of.”

And she thinks of her dad. 

“My North Star with the whole thing has always been that it was a tribute to my father,” says Gunderman. “So it's been a transformational thing for me, because it helped me get over grief. And it also made me understand how a specific kinds of music can really be instrumental in overcoming grief too.” 

The shows stream over InstrumentheadLive.com for free, but donations are requested to support the artists and to benefit Music Health Alliance.