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Wednesday, Nov. 27, 2013

The Whiskeybelles Celebrate the Season with Covers and Liquor

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Holiday music seems to get played earlier each year. These days, yuletide standards seem to hit department store speakers and regular terrestrial radio rotation the morning after Halloween. Christmas came extra early this year for The Whiskeybelles—April, to be exact.

Last spring, the WAMI-winning female country trio sought to take an unorthodox and decidedly more festive angle for the follow-up to their 2012 debut Whiskey Woman. A holiday album was born.

“We all have such nostalgic memories of Christmas albums and Christmas time, so we just wanted to do it,” bassist Sara Moilanen said.

Using their award-winning three-part harmonies and Americana-tinged country stylings that have made them festival fixtures and earned them an opening gig for heavy-hitters like Montgomery Gentry, The Whiskeybelles took to adapting a dozen Christmas classics into Nothin’ Says Christmas Like Whiskey!

“I think we’re all choirgirls at heart,” said guitarist Chrissy Dzioba. “We were nostalgic for singing songs like ‘Silent Night’ in a gym auditorium, and we wanted to bring that back in a more professional and bluegrass level.”

Once songs were learned, revised and licensing rights were purchased, the ’Belles went into the studio to make bluegrass out of hymns synonymous with red and green. They were joined there by a Milwaukee music legend. Former Violent Femmes drummer Victor DeLorenzo stepped into the recording booth to lend percussive support to new versions of two songs, “Jing-a-Ling, Jing-a-Ling”—popularized by The Andrews Sisters—and 1953’s John Rox-written, Gayla Peevey-performed “I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas.”

“We met through a mutual friend when we were recording our first album and he did a track on our first album as well,” Moilanen said. “He was so much fun in the studio that we decided we needed to have him back.”

Aside from his regionally renowned chops, DeLorenzo added an air of fun to the studio experience.

“He’s just a blast to work with,” Dzioba said. “He’s the most musical drummer I’ve ever met in my life.” Fiddle player Kimmy Unger added, “He’s seriously charismatic.”

Also giving The Whiskeybelles the gift of album accompaniment were members of Milwaukee bluegrass act Chicken Wire Empire and country outfit Doghouse Flowers.

This one’s a little more produced than our original album,” Dzioba said. “We were able to step up the production and really make our vision come alive. It was loads of fun.”

Other countrified Christmas ditties include John Lennon’s “Happy Xmas (War Is Over),” Joni Mitchell’s “River” and Bing Crosby classic “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” as well as an original song entitled “Mama Never Liked Christmas.”

While entrenched in the holiday spirit since April, the trio has still managed some-70 performances this year—ranging from club shows, private parties and large-scale events like Bastille Days, Summerfest and Wisconsin State Fair, among others.

“There’s never a break,” Unger said. “We’re booking for next summer already. I think we’d all like to start writing some original music collectively, which has been difficult to do because it’s just been one thing after another. It’s just been a complete whirlwind for all of us.”

The whirlwind year will draw to a close with the release of Nothin’ Says Christmas Like Whiskey! and long-awaited opportunities to play songs born this spring, in a seasonally appropriate setting. After that, Milwaukee’s hardest-working women in country will start all over again, with a full schedule of shows and new material on the way. As for the first order of business: “Stop playing Christmas songs,” Unger said, laughing.

The Whiskeybelles will release Nothin’ Says Christmas Like Whiskey! Saturday, Nov. 30, at Club Garibaldi, 2501 S. Superior St. The show begins at 8:30 p.m. and features special guests Doghouse Flowers and Chicken Wire Empire.

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