No concept album theme has been examined more exhaustively than Christmas. A fresh angle within the holiday music realm seems unlikely, but longtime Cincinnati radio personality Brian O’Donnell, now a fixture on WGUC and WNKU, and local guitarist Jose Madrigal teamed up to craft one with Ring: A Cincinnati Guitar Christmas for Public Radio.
Last year, O’Donnell was scheduling local talent to play live Christmas music during his Saturday shift at WNKU, a longstanding annual tradition. Madrigal committed to a slot but backed out at the last minute, leading to an interesting suggestion.
“Joe said he’d had a flare-up of Carpal Tunnel and couldn’t play the way he wanted to play,” O’Donnell says in his WGUC office. “About a week after Christmas, I got an e-mail from Joe, who posed the question, ‘What would you think about getting the great guitarists from the area to do a Christmas song and a Christmas CD for public radio?’”
With Madrigal’s concept swirling in his mind, O’Donnell conjured a list of guitarists for the project. His first contact was Pop/Rock icon Rob Fetters, an old friend and loyal supporter of public radio.
“I love him and his work,” O’Donnell says. “We were coming up on a WNKU fundraiser, I told Rob and he said, ‘Would you be interested in me helping you kick it off?’ He came by that Saturday and played two or three songs at 8 a.m., when he’s not used to playing or singing. That’s why I thought of him first — he’s a huge fan of public radio.”
One by one, O’Donnell secured talent for what became Ring. Several guitarists had to decline — Greg Schaber and Brian Lovely were both swamped, as were a pair of figures who loom fairly large in Greater Cincinnati music history.
“Adrian Belew politely turned me down, saying his studio was torn apart and wouldn’t be back together until September,” O’Donnell says. “Lonnie Mack just said, ‘I really appreciate the offer, but I can’t do it right now.’ Those are the two that I would love to have had.”
The guitarists who did participate represent a virtual who’s who of the regional scene: Pop/Rock wizards Fetters, Roger Klug and Chris Arduser; dynamic masters George Cunningham and Larry and Tim Goshorn; atmospherically inclined producer/performer Ric Hordinski; Blues groover Marcos Sastre; former Wheels guitarists Michael Wheeler and Jeffrey Seeman; Rock superstar and Cincy resident Peter Frampton; and Jazz giant Scotty Anderson, among many others.
O’Donnell hesitates to single out a favorite performance, although he notes Fetters’ exquisite “The First Noel,” Cunningham’s Beatlesque run through “I Saw Three Ships” and Klug’s recorded-in-an-actual-barnyard “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear.” He ultimately endorses every song for some unique quality. It’s the artists’ overall intentions that impressed him the most.
“The thrill was everybody who said yes,” O’Donnell says. “The bigger thrill was nobody went through the motions and strummed a three-chord Christmas song. They really put a lot of thought into the arrangement, production and post-production of these pieces.
“And Rob (Fetters) said that he knew in his mind — and he talked to other musicians on the project — that they had no intentions of being flashy guitar-slingers because they were serious about turning in good music for a good cause. Nobody was trying to ace anybody out.”
Ring’s singularity gives the release an irresistible appeal, becoming a fundraiser for all of the area’s public radio affiliates — WGUC, WNKU, WVXU and WMUB — and available only as a premium at the $100 membership level. All four stations have raised funds via Ring; the initial pressing of 1,000 discs is gone, meaning that the album has increased local public radio’s coffers by at least $100,000 so far.
Ring is an aural delight thanks to the artists, some of whom recorded at Madrigal’s home studio, and expert mastering by Dave Davis. But it’s a visual treat as well, with photography by renowned lensman Michael Wilson and photography/art direction by Steve Ziegelmeyer, making it a gift for the eyes as well as the ears.
There’s still plenty of steam in Ring’s promotion. Another 1,000-unit pressing is planned, more on-air fundraising is slated (Dec. 1 on WNKU, Dec. 17 on the other three). A concert featuring some of Ring’s guitarists (including Cunningham, Nick Radina, Tina Gutierrez, Brian Deyo and Sylvain Acher as well as Richard Goering, Bruce Botts and a host of supporting musicians) is scheduled for the Mercantile Library on Dec. 17 at noon.
O’Donnell is already thinking ahead to 2011. Ring: Volume 2 isn’t out of the question, but he thinks they’ll likely just repress the first one. And there’s talk of making Ring a national fundraiser.
“I got quirky looks from people when I said I was producing a Christmas CD for public radio,” O’Donnell says. “The excitement level built and then when I said that, they went, ‘What? A Christmas CD?’ Well, I’m totally at ease in saying this is the hippest Christmas record I’ve ever heard in my life. I’ve heard good Christmas records that do what they’re supposed to do, but this is totally different.”
RING: A CINCINNATI GUITAR CHRISTMAS FOR PUBLIC RADIO is available only with a pledge to local public radio. The Web sites of WGUC, WNKU, WVXU and WMUB can facilitate the necessary membership to obtain the CD.