The latest single from Nashville based singer/songwriter Kelly McGrath, “O Holy Night”, takes some of its inspiration from Jeff Buckley’s famous rendition of “Hallelujah”. Instead of subjecting listeners to the customary approach to Christmas themed music, bloated arrangements replete with strings and whole host of other clichéd elements, McGrath strips this spiritually minded tune down to its bare bones and relies on nothing but McGrath’s singing and electric guitar accompaniment to convey its heart and inherent poetry. Her phrasing reflects the years of live shows and studio releases that have honed her skills to sharp edge and established her as one of the pre-eminent talents working out of the Nashville area. She’s tasted commercial success while still enjoying critical accolades and the respect of her fellow musicians, singers, and songwriters. “O Holy Night” isn’t your standard Christmas fare, but Kelly McGrath is far from your standard Nashville musician and performer.
There’s no hint of Music City’s past in her performance. McGrath may work in country music’s traditional capital, but she has a voice free to range across a vast array of styles without losing any of her effectiveness. Her voice has a decidedly blues-influence feel at various points during her performance of “O Holy Night” and it’s a nice fit for both the song itself and, in particular, the guitar playing accompanying her. The decision to cut this track with just herself and a guitar, inspired by Jeff Buckley’s approach to “Hallelujah” mentioned earlier, proves to be the crucial factor that sends her interpretation over the top. It gives the song a gravitas that it doesn’t often possess after decades of being piped through mall speakers and elevators as muzak. Instead, presenting the song in these terms and with such a serious-intended vocal aspires to artistic heights rather than just merely commercial ones. It is a safe bet that this song succeeds hitting both marks.
The guitar playing brings a masterful touch to the work. Much like McGrath’s singing, the six string work is a model of understatement and focusing on serving the song’s goals and no more. The generous amount of guitar effects applied to its sound never cheapens its effects and, instead, underlines the obvious mood that McGrath is attempting to conjure. There’s an overall coherence to the way “O Holy Night” comes off that suggests she entered the studio for this session absolutely certain how she wanted the song to sound and brought about the intended results with a minimum amount of fuss. The lyrical moments achieved by the guitar playing are among the most memorable parts of McGrath’s recording and provide an excellent counterpoint to her equally memorable vocals. It isn’t just any performer who can come at this sort of standard material and wring new life from its familiar changes, but there’s nothing in McGrath’s career that’s marked her as run of the mill. She continues to prove that with “O Holy Night”.