The week before Thanksgiving is a seasonally appropriate time to dust off the Christmas carols, and it’s also a welcome moment to hear new music from Kelleigh Bannen, one of Nashville’s most promising country voices and one held up in Music Row limbo for far too long. Bannen’s versions of two holiday classics – “Deck the Halls” and “O Holy Night” – combine both these things, bringing her soulful, southern slide to the timeless tunes. On “Deck the Halls,” premiering exclusively on Rolling Stone Country, Bannen pumps the song full of attitude and vocal power, with some swampy guitar sounding straight from those porches where December 25th is just as often hot and humid as it is covered in snow. Watch the video, where Bannen works her tree trimming skills, above.
“We were looking for something we could really ‘mess up,'” Bannen says about the choice to record, and reinvent, “Deck the Halls.” “With Christmas carols you either need to go classic and traditional, or you have to do something really unexpected. Since there are so many versions of all of these songs, you have to think, ‘can I add anything to the conversation?’…On ‘Deck The Halls,’ I just kind of stumbled onto this fun little alternate melody for the ‘fa la la’ part and it made us realize we could do something really fun with it. ”
Like those fiery “fa la la’s,” Bannen’s always had a knack for spinning a slightly left-of-center, mischievous take on modern country, fusing her powerful vocals with some infectious melodies and playful messages – like on her single “Sorry on the Rocks” or the tracks “Smoke When I Drink” and “Landlocked,” which could have been singles had they not landed at the height of bro-country. Instead, Bannen left her deal with EMI Records Nashville, and has been working as an independent artist ever since, focusing on recording new music and running a blog/podcast, This Nashville Life. Though she left on amicable terms, Bannen admits that she completed 2.5 full albums over the course of her record deal, but nothing ever got the support to see the light of day.
“I wasn’t shiny and new,” Bannen says, looking back at what could have gone wrong. “We had a couple failed singles and I was never going to be fresh and shiny and new and exiting. Every time I would turn in music is it was just like, ‘oh radio promo doesn’t hear the no-brainers,’ and that’s a really bad way for me to make music. It programs your writing to be a certain thing. I had to deprogram. I want hits on the radio, and who doesn’t? But I had to relearn what I was kind of doing originally, before that was the main focus.”
Bannen also released “Church Clothes,” a sharp, insightful ballad about the ways we tend to cover the pain in the places we should show them most, and is now working on new music, focusing on the creative space one can chisel in a world unbound from the pressures of an album. “I feel a little more freedom to cut things that are a little more outrageous or bold or weird,” says Bannen. “In the digital game it’s, ‘let’s just have fun, let’s just have the most fun we can have in three minutes.'”
On November 27th, Bannen will open for Little Big Town at Nashville’s Ryman auditorium, the last date of the quartet’s extended residency. “Deck The Halls” and a version of “O Holy Night,” both produced by Justin Glasco (the Lone Bellow) will be available tomorrow.