Thursday, December 7, 2023

Merry and Bright Interview with Tim Neely (part 2)

Part 2 of my exclusive interview with Tim Neely, Christmas Music Collector All-Star and author of the Goldmine Christmas Record Price Guide.


MB:  Ok, let’s get to some nuts and bolts, or should I say chestnuts and peppermint sticks, of Christmas music.  In 1997 your book, the Goldmine Christmas Record Price Guide, was published.  Even now, 25+ years later, it’s still an indispensable guide for the serious collector.  How did the Goldmine guide come about? 

TN: First, thanks for the compliment.

The Christmas Record Price Guide came about for two reasons. First, when I was hired at Krause Publications, the publisher of Goldmine in those days, I was brought onboard to put together a database that eventually became the source for the Goldmine Standard Catalog of American Records, a mammoth 1,200-plus-page price guide that finally hit the market in 1998. Second, to lead up to that event, I was given leeway to create books that would help beef up the database en route to the final goal. Christmas records were a strong interest of mine, and of course, a general guide to records would have to have some Christmas records in it. So why not a separate guide to Christmas music?

MB:  You should be very proud of the Guide.  I refer to it many times every year. 

TN: Thank you. It didn't sell very well, but those people who did buy it, such as you, treat it with great reverence. I haven't checked lately, but I once noticed that old price guides don't have much interest as collectibles in their own right. The exception was the Christmas Record Price Guide.

I've been asked many times by fans to do an updated version, but I don't know how viable it would be. When I worked at Krause, it was out of the question because of the poor sales of the first edition. It's now been more than 15 years since my last price guide of any kind and more than a quarter century since the Christmas guide came out. I find it surprising, but flattering, that there is still interest all these years later.

MB: And now, with the first edition of the Goldmine Guide behind you, you’ve continued to carry the Christmas music torch with your “Christmas Song of the Day”.  Every year since 2014, each day from December 1 through December 31 you share with us, via your website Tim Neely Stuff, a Christmas song that has some special meaning to you, including the story behind the song (that’s 279 songs so far, by the way).  Some of the stories are quite personal, which brings a deeper meaning to the song for us, your readers.  How is it that a particular song gets selected as one of your Christmas Songs of the Day?

TN: I have two primary considerations for each Christmas Song of the Day. First, does this song deserve greater attention from mainstream radio? And second, do I at least like it? Beyond that, if the song has an interesting story, that makes it better.

I always worry that some of the entries get way too personal. In real life, my past stays close to the vest until I can trust someone. But I'm usually more open and vulnerable when I write. Many Christmas songs remind me of early Christmases, lost loves, people who have passed away, and other things that don't always come up in conversation, and adding those impressions makes the story more meaningful to me. I'm glad at least some other people get something out of them.

MB:  I’ve been introduced to so many songs and artists through your annual CSotD lists (as a collector nerd, I have them all listed in a spreadsheet).  Sharing under-appreciated songs to our community is one of the very special things about being in the collector family.  Are there a couple standouts from that list of 279 songs that you’d like to mention?

TN: You're more organized with my Christmas Songs of the Day than I am! I sometimes have to search my old entries to make sure that I've not done a song in the past. All my old entries still exist, so newcomers to the CSotD can see what I've done previously. I'm thinking of making it easier to find past years' entries, if I can do so.

Since 2015, when I moved the feature to my blog rather than posting it only on Facebook, only a handful of my entries have made it to mainstream radio; it's more common that my choices used to be on the radio but have been shunted aside.

I could mention so many of the songs I've posted. Because you also asked what songs I think would work great on regular rotation on Christmas radio, I'll pick a couple that might not because of the emotions they may evoke.

In 2007, when she was merely an up-and-coming country singer and not yet a cultural phenomenon, Taylor Swift did an EP for Target, and one of the songs on it is the heartbreaking "Christmases When You Were Mine." A couple of the covers on the disc are in regular radio rotation, but not this one, a song she co-wrote. I was more than a year and a half past my first serious relationship, and it still made me cry the first time I heard it. The line "When you were putting up the lights this year, did you notice one less pair of hands?" really hit hard. I'd imagine that anyone who'd had a great Christmas with a now-gone romantic partner could relate.

In a similar vein is "The Heartache Can Wait" by Brandi Carlile, which I find devastating. She's desperately trying to avoid breaking up with a romantic partner during the Christmas season because she knows what would happen.

On a more cheery note, I've really come to like those songs in which, to paraphrase "Amazing Grace," Christmas is lost, but now it's found. Three of different types that immediately come to mind are "Santa Will Find You" by Mindy Smith, "Christmas Always Finds Me" by Ingrid Andress, and "When My Heart Finds Christmas" by Harry Connick, Jr. The last of those used to be played regularly on Christmas radio, but I realized how rarely I'd heard it in the past several years, so I wrote a CSotD entry on it in 2022. To me, it's the greatest Frank Sinatra Christmas song that Ol' Blue Eyes never recorded.

MB:  I’m often asked “What is your favorite Christmas song?”, and my answer usually includes five or six songs in rapid response.  But, I’ll pose that question to you:  Do you have a favorite Christmas song?  How about an album?

TN: I still have a soft spot, more than 50 years after I first heard it, for "The Christmas Song" by Nat King Cole. I didn't know what it was called when I was a kid; it was the "chestnuts roasting on an open fire" or "kids from one to 92" or the "many times, many ways" song. I think it says just about everything secular that makes Christmas wonderful. And with all the covers of the song, though none has surpassed Cole's several versions, none has been an embarrassment, either. There are some great covers.

As far as more sacred songs, there's something about "Silent Night" sung by candlelight in a Christmas service, especially on Christmas Eve, that still gets to me, whether in English or German or with wordless vocals or as an instrumental. It's popular in the Christmas-music community to be unkind to Mannheim Steamroller, but its version of "Stille Nacht," with just a voice or voices singing "ooh" instead of the words, is otherworldly. Few other songs make me feel how lonely a pre-dawn Christmas morning can be.

A more "contemporary," or post-1980s, song I love is "Breath of Heaven (Mary's Song)" by Amy Grant. I happen to think that the 1990s were a golden decade for new Christmas songs, and this might be the most golden of all. I rarely hear it except on Christian stations, but when that piano intro comes on, I get goosebumps. And the part at the end of the second verse where a word is dropped each time is some great writing: "Help me be strong. Help me be. Help me."

Albums? That's even tougher. As I've written in my blog almost annually, I have a soft spot for the 1967 W.T. Grant compilation A Very Merry Christmas, mostly because it was the first "grown-up" album my parents let me play. But it also has some truly unusual selections that rarely have appeared on other Christmas albums, such as "The Star Carol" by Simon and Garfunkel and "Sweetest Dreams Be Thine" by Theodore Bikel.

I also love A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector, as it is called these days. That pretty much speaks for itself, though there's a misconception that it was a noble flop when it was first released. In reality, it was pretty successful in 1963, but it did go out of print from about 1967 to 1972, which added to its mystique. Overall, the year 1963 was an unusually strong year for both new and reissued Christmas music. Perhaps a blog entry is in order to flesh this out some more.

A single-artist Christmas album that never gets old is A Charlie Brown Christmas by the Vince Guaraldi Trio. I didn't even know this album existed until 1990. It's so omnipresent today that it can be hard to believe that, for quite a long time, the only easy way to hear the music was to watch the TV show once a year.

MB:  If you could pick one or two unheralded Christmas songs that no one in the general public has heard and get them into the top 10 Christmas song radio rotations, what would they be?

TN: Just one or two? If you insist … (smile)

Let me start with one I first heard on a hyper-local radio station some years ago. It was so obscure that I couldn't Shazam it, nor could I find the lyrics online, when I first heard it. I ended up emailing the radio station, and they told me what the song was. I then discovered that I had it in my collection! It's "Your Christmas Day" by Laura Allan – another great new Christmas song from the 1990s. I just love the lines "And though the road be long and winding / There's a Christmas star a-shining / And the angel's gonna help you find your Christmas day." It's a very optimistic song.

The other one is one of the many Christmas songs without which the season in England would be incomplete, but Americans don't know at all – "Driving Home for Christmas" by Chris Rea. Most people who go somewhere for Christmas drive there, and Rea sings of the anticipation and the memories, and of the other drivers around him who are also driving home for Christmas. If I were programming a holiday radio station, I'd immediately find a place for this. I think American audiences would love it.

OK, here's a third, if you'll indulge me. The alt-rock band Better Than Ezra was basically a one-hit wonder with their 1995 Top 40 hit "Good." But before they vanished, they put out a wonderful non-album cut called "Merry Christmas Eve," which is like "The Christmas Song" for the 1990s, because it mentions so many things that make the holiday great. And it even mentions "a midnight Mass for a birthday" in its lyrics. I've heard it on the radio only a handful of times since the first time I heard it around 1997, but I love it, and I think radio would, too.

MB:  Do you have a ‘holy grail’ of Christmas records you want for your collection?  At a screening of “Jingle Bell Rocks” a few years ago, I asked that question to Mitchell Kezin, and his response at that time was one of Jimmy McGriff’s albums (since found and acquired).  Is there anything on your list?

TN: I stopped actively buying "vintage" Christmas music once I lost track of what I owned and what I didn't. But if I ever decided to come out of retirement, so to speak, a couple albums I don't own and have never owned that I'd like to get are both the mono and stereo original 1965 editions of A Charlie Brown Christmas by the Vince Guaraldi Trio. They were expensive 20 years ago and are probably even more expensive now, despite almost annual reissues (though I don't think it's ever been reissued in mono).

On CD: When I moved to Virginia in 2013, a good portion of my CD collection never made it onto the moving truck. Though most of the missing albums and singles were non-Christmas, I did lose a couple hundred Christmas CDs. To this day, I haven't completely assessed what was lost, but I know I have several holes in what used to be complete runs of several series, including the True Value Hardware Happy Holidays series and the Hallmark series (the Sheryl Crow and James Taylor discs, at least, are missing). So I'd want to re-obtain those.

As for discs I never had, I remember getting outbid on eBay on a promo copy of the Kimberley Locke Christmas CD back when it was released, and I've never encountered another one.

On 45: The full-volume mix of "Gaudete" by Steeleye Span. It's on the original British 45, and it's not that rare over there, but it has eluded my grasp. The song was released twice in the U.S. on 45, but I don't know if either one contains the British single mix or was lifted from the album, which fades in, peaks in volume halfway through, then gradually fades out. Unless someone here in the States has one, it would cost me more in postage than the record is worth.

I'd also like the Beatles' Christmas 45 box set from a few years back; I was broke when that came out, and of course it's now out of print and very expensive. I'd love to hear those in decent sound. I've had a bootleg LP with muddy sound since 1980 or so.

And there's one more 45: "Blue Christmas" by Seymour Swine and the Squeelers (sic) on the Swine Productions label. This is the famous "Porky Pig" version recorded by a DJ in, I think, Charlotte, N.C. in the 1980s. I first heard it on a mix CD someone sent me in the 1990s, but I've since learned that it was edited and sped up, so I want the real McCoy.

MB:  What type of Christmas songs do you not care for?  Is there a particular music genre or songwriting style that just doesn’t jingle your bells?

TN: I have a very high tolerance for Christmas music of virtually all genres and virtually all aspects of the holiday season. The songs or versions I don't like tend to be on a case-by-case basis.

MB:  A final question for you Tim, and it’s a bit philosophical.  What are the qualities of your love of Christmas music that you would share with everyone if you could?

TN: Wow. What I love about Christmas music is the seemingly endless ways that songwriters and singers express their love of the season. You'd think that, by now, everything that could possibly be said about almost every aspect of the holiday has been said. But every year, I find something new, different, and interesting. And that's what is so great about it to me.

And as a format, there is none more diverse. Sure, all the songs are about this time of the year, but there is no other format where Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra, Johnny Mathis, and Bing Crosby rest comfortably with Gwen Stefani, Blake Shelton, John Legend, and Taylor Swift, who fit in with Mannheim Steamroller, Trans-Siberian Orchestra, Bruce Springsteen, and the Pretenders, who can be joined by the Beach Boys, the Ronettes, Donny Hathaway, and Vince Guaraldi. (And that's merely scratching the surface.) If you're lucky, you might hear every one of those artists in the same hour!

MB:  Tim, once again, thank you so much for taking the time to visit with Merry & Bright.  I hope for many more years of Tim Neely’s Christmas Song of the Day, and I wish you a very happy and safe holiday season!

TN: Thank you so much!


See Tim's Christmas Song of the Day at Tim Neely Stuff


  1. Great finish to a great interview! Thanks!

  2. Excellent interview. Christmas music has magical powers.