With The King’s Gift, Trace Adkins fulfills a longtime dream and brings to the Christmas season a rare and welcome treasure. Working with co-producers Michael Spriggs and Jon Coleman and a stellar cast of instrumentalists and singers, he has created a musical work filled with ancient rhythms and timeless emotions. By looking past the season’s commercial trappings, he and his colleagues have brought fresh eyes and ears to that most profound of Christmas miracles–the arrival of hope and salvation.
"I’ve been making records for 16 years or so," says Trace, "and for my money this is musically the most beautiful thing I’ve ever been a part of, from the first song to the last. This is the record I envisioned, exactly what I hoped it would be."
A decade ago, Trace was approached about making a Christmas album, but his idea of centuries-old hymns and Celtic arrangements was a far cry from the "Country Christmas" the label execs envisioned. Now, he has joined Spriggs, a British-born, A-list guitarist who’s as familiar with pipes and penny whistles as he is with electric instruments, and longtime band member, keyboardist Jon Coleman, to bring his idea to life.
"I’d been playing with Jon long enough to know he had all the talent in the world to pull this off," says Trace, "and I said, ‘I’ll do it if you produce with Michael Spriggs.’ I knew they would become brothers once they spent a little time together."
That set The King’s Gift — and a musical brotherhood — in motion.
"Michael and Jon produced this record," says Trace. "I made suggestions, but they are due all the credit for the way it’s laid out and put together, for the feel of it."
The vision began with the songs, which range from "O Come Emmanuel," whose roots reach into the 8th century, to "The Little Drummer Boy," whose 1941 composition makes it the album’s newcomer, with just under three-quarters of a century of history.
The project includes "Wexford Carol," a 12th-century Irish carol that opens the record with an invitation to the faithful. Trace’s stately reading of "O Tannenbaum," the one nod to outside traditions, celebrates both the eternality of the evergreen and nature’s partnership in reflecting God’s creation.
There is "I Saw Three Ships," which dates to the 17th century, "We Three Kings," the 19th-century ode to the Magi, "Oh Holy Night," a 19th century French masterwork, and "What Child Is This," which applies the melody of "Greensleeves" to the manger birth. It was Trace who brought "Silent Night" and "Away In A Manger," two of the most popular and beloved of all carols, to the project.
In feel, they comprise a work that is stately, high-minded, and Celtic – powered by the talents of world-class players. "Everybody who participated brought their A game and just seemed to give that extra little something," says Trace. "Everybody approached this with a reverence and dedication that they might not put in to a commercial ditty."
Along with Michael and Jon, multi-instrumentalist Jonathan Yudkin played a key role. "He can do things no one else does," says Michael. "He is just as good on mandolin as he is on violin, and he doubled some incredible solos. He also played cello, viola and double bass, intertwining lines with our rhythms."
Then, adds Trace, "One of my few requests was bringing in Kenny Aronoff to play drums on ‘The Little Drummer Boy.’" It was a brilliant selection, for Aranoff, known for his work with John Mellencamp and others, and Steve Brewster laid down percussion tracks that hold together a complex and arresting arrangement. There is also brilliant pipe work by Paddy Maloney of the Chieftans, who appear as an ensemble in "I Saw Three Ships." Their presence adds authenticity to Trace’s Celtic vision. "I Saw Three Ships" also features Triona Marshall’s harp and John Richardson’s percussion work, which ties together a track that moves from hymn to jig and back again.
The vocalists who contributed are just as stellar. Sonya Isaacs, known for her work with her family, the Isaacs, and for backup work with everyone from Vince Gill to Dolly Parton, appears on "We Three Kings" and with The Isaacs on "Wexford Carol" and "Oh Holy Night"; Alyth McCormack brings special grace and poignancy to "What Child Is This," and takes "I Saw Three Ships" to another level, opening the song with an incredible a cappella Gaelic verse. Emma Stevens provides stunning vocal work on "Away In A Manger" and "O Come Emmanuel"; and Lily Costner provides an incredible counterpoint to Trace’s work on "Silent Night," singing with her father, Kevin Costner.
And yet for all the assembled talent, it is Trace’s voice that makes this project work. Few singers have the pure, powerful instrument he possesses. Still, he brings just the right ensemble attitude to the proceedings.
"As I began to realize what a musically beautiful collection this is," he says, "I said, ‘I just want my vocal to blend and be another instrument, in a way that doesn’t take the listener’s ear away from what is happening.’"
"Trace is a bona fide recording artist," says Jon, "and by ‘artist’ I mean someone who can take you to a place where you feel and see and hear it."
"On this record, you see a side of Trace nobody has seen before," adds Michael. "When he sings "Silent Night," he does his own improvisation and what he does on "Drummer Boy" is crazy. He goes down a whole octave and nails this thing. It’s a Trace Adkins vocal but it’s not country."
As for his overall approach, Trace says, "I wanted to make a Christmas record so that if you walked into a white-collar Christmas party in Manhattan, there might be a chance you would hear it being played."
Though each song brings a necessary contribution to the project, it is "The Little Drummer Boy" that gives the record its overarching metaphor–the presentation of one’s best to the Christ child, the infant king–and so its name, The King’s Gift.
"The monetary value of the gift has absolutely nothing to do with it," says Trace. "You give from your heart to the King. The little drummer boy gave what he had – his talent. To me, that encapsulates the emotional direction of this entire project."