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"The Yule duel: Two local musicians tackle the challenge to produce a Valley Christmas carol."

by Don Mayhew
The Fresno Bee, Sunday, December 17, 2000

A month is a long time.

You can get through an entire Olympics, torch lighting to closing ceremony, in that time. You can travel coast to coast (making several trips, if you're in a hurry).

You can decide a presidential election.

OK, maybe not every presidential election.

But a month is a long time -- unless you're a musician with a deadline.

This was our autumn challenge: Write, perform, record and mix a holiday tune that makes reference, directly or subtly, to the Valley. The songs can be sentimental or spiritual, solemn or satirical. And by the way, we need them in less than 30 days so readers can vote for which one they like best.

Two Valley rock musicians, Blake Jones of Kingsburg and Nate Butler of Fresno, were up to the challenge.

They provided us with a pair of sentimental songs that have a distinct Valley flavor. You can hear them on the radio or the Web and vote for your favorite (see accompanying box for details).

Butler's "Everyone Sing Fa-La-La-La" is chatty and contemplative, an extension of the cabaret rock he performs with his band, the Suede Mouse Trio. He sings of Fresno Christmases where we freeze, "but it never snows."

Jones & the Trike Shop's "The Lights Still Shine" rocks softly, a hopeful meditation on family (Jones' 8-year-old daughter, Chelsea, sings a line at the end of the song) that reflects the songwriter's 12-year fascination with the Beach Boys' Brian Wilson.

Christmas records have been around almost as long as any other kind, evolving easily from church hymns. For a half-century starting in the 1940s, Bing Crosby's "White Christmas" was the best-selling single ever. Gene Autry's version of "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" has been a holiday favorite for nearly as long.

The season wouldn't be complete for many people without holiday music -- as myriad retail displays at music, book, discount and department stores make clear. Mannheim Steamroller's Renaissance-flavored Christmas pop albums have sold millions and topped the charts during the holidays.

Our two Valley renditions aren't likely to scale those heights. Yet they share with those classics a sense of wonder about the spiritual power of the season.

Both Jones and Butler are fond of mirth and started out thinking they might write silly songs.

Jones likes to use odd instruments -- the part-harmonica, part-keyboard melodica, accordion and especially an old toy piano -- and even had them spread out on the floor in preparation for recording "The Lights Still Shine."

"But it started to sound like, 'OK, enough already,' " Jones says. He wound up using a regular piano and plain old guitars.

"I love fun, whimsical songs," Jones says. "But I got gushy about this."

Jones began with a mental image of he and his wife (then his girlfriend) snuggling in the winter orchards near her parents' Clovis home, surrounded by a "fog of mistletoe."

"But it wound up being about generations, my mom and my daughter, about hope in the face of this bittersweet cycle of life and death," Jones says. "I was tripping on the fact that my mom and my grandma were once someone's little angel, the way my daughter is to me."

Jones composed the song the way he does all his music, at home "just letting it congeal." He found having a specific subject to write about gave him a head start.

It was the opposite for Butler.

"When I write, I don't sit down to write a song about bananas or whatever," Butler says. "I never sit down to write a song with a prerequisite. It made it very hard to start. It made it an assignment."

Butler tried a couple of times to come up with something brand new.

"All I got out of it was a song called 'Humdinger,' a song about a guy who always gets picked last for the team," he says. "For 30 minutes, it was called 'Christmas Humdinger.' Then the song took me somewhere else."

A friend suggested Butler take one of his old songs and rewrite the words.

"In 1988, I wrote a song called 'The Great Irregular Circle,' " Butler says. "I recorded it on a home album and gave them out in 1989 as Christmas gifts. It was very show-tuney."

The song never made it past Butler's circle of friends. Changing it around so it became "Everyone Sing Fa-La-La-La" clicked. The song's subject is his Club Fred Christmas show each December and the spirit that seizes people who attend.

"It's a little like the song was waiting 12 years for me to peel back the layers and find it," Butler says.

Once Butler got going, things went quickly.

"In less than an hour, I had it," Butler says. "What was funny was that the weakest part of the song ended up being its strongest part. The 'fa-la-la-las' were words you couldn't understand. Almost no words stayed."

It was Butler's first attempt at a yuletide song. Jones has written many, including "On Christmas Tree Lane" and "I'll Be in My Momma's Belly on Christmas Day," written when Jones' wife was pregnant with their daughter.

It includes the uproariously plaintive couplet: "I'm stuck up here in my mommy's womb/as the 'Tannenbaum' starts to light up the room."

Both composers say writing carols was so much fun they'd do it again in the blink of an eye. Asked what they might change about the songs here, both express regrets about their singing.

Jones says he'd drop the song's key to a more comfortable range.

Butler says his vocals were "about one-third good, one-third I can live with and one-third I hope no one notices."

In the spirit of the season, that ought to be easy enough.

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