The Making of Off White Christmas, Part 1

It all started with a hamburger. A big, greasy, overbuilt monstrosity that was reportedly “demolished” by Guy Fieri, the Food Network dude who made a career out of a hairstyle. The restaurant was Waddell’s in Spokane, and I’d called Chip Whitson to see if he and Stephi could meet us there when we stopped for dinner on our way back to Missoula from my son’s lacrosse jamboree in Richland.

Chip also ordered a huge specialty burger, and we talked around big mouthfuls of bacon-infused beef as we kicked around the idea of writing and recording a Christmas album. Neither of us was interested in putting out yet another version of the tired old standards that so many people have gotten sick of hearing every year. Chip said he’d start thinking about some ideas that expanded on his classic “You Ain’t Gettin’ Shit for Christmas,” which he’d written four years earlier. We parted ways and vowed to reconvene sometime after Labor Day.

Back in Missoula, I was invited to appear on the Trail’s Live & Local Lunch segment on the radio shortly afterwards, and I announced to the world my intention of releasing a Christmas album in the fall. I emailed Chip and said that now we were committed. Now there were witnesses.

Like Chip, I compiled a list of potential song titles. Some, like Credit Card Christmas, made the final cut. Others did not. Here are some examples:
Santa Hasn’t Had His Coffee Yet
Artificial Christmas Tree Blues
Christmas In Mexico
Shitfaced On Eggnog
Black Friday (Only Comes Once a Year)
Put Me at the Top of Your Wish List
I’m Gonna Steal a Christmas Tree
Getting’ Lucky at the Office Christmas Party
Santa’s Elves Must Live In China
I’m Giving My Nephew a Drum Kit (‘Cause I’m Mad at My Sister)

I began jotting down interesting phrases and couplets in a notebook, but didn’t make a serious attempt at writing until June. It happened in Florida, and it happened fast. Barb and the kids and I had spent a week with Barb’s family at a beach house near Port St. Joe, on the Gulf. When I’m on vacation, especially in Florida, the muse usually unloads and I come home with a notebook full of songs and ideas. This time, though, I seemed to be blocked up. So when we left the beach house and drove north toward Pensacola, I had a notebook full of blank pages. But as we drove from Panama City toward Ponce de León State Park, the words began to flow. It was like somebody turned on the faucet. Barb was at the wheel of the rental car, the kids plugged into their iPods in the back. I wrote three songs in just under two hours. That night in our Pensacola hotel room, I broke out my guitar and polished them up. I knew they were keepers.

Once we got back to Missoula, I wrote a couple more Christmas songs over the summer. Like all summers in Missoula, this one was busy as hell. Camping, traveling, visitors, and a big fundraiser in our backyard for a local political candidate took up most of my time. But I kept in contact with Chip, and as Labor Day approached the faucet opened for him too. We began to send each other mp3s of guitar-and-vocal demos of our songs. We critiqued each other’s work a bit, and chose a weekend in September when I would drive out to his house in Spokane and get these songs arranged.

That weekend was a blur of intense, sweaty, hilarious, surprising and sometimes poignant collaboration. Between my overestimation of the travel time, and forgetting that I’d gain an hour, I was more than two hours early to Spokane on Friday afternoon. Chip was still at work. Fortunately, Chip’s wife Stephi and their 10-year-old boy Jace were there to entertain me. I was teaching Jace a cheesy card trick when Chip got home from work. Stephi made us a great dinner, and we adjourned to the spare bedroom upstairs to break out the acoustics and start going over the songs.

This was mid-September, and it was hot as hell in that room, even at night. I was sweating like Mel Gibson in a synagogue. My t-shirt was soaked through and sweat was stinging my eyes as we sat on the floor with our notebooks, teaching each other the lyrics and chord progressions to our songs. Jace was right there, breaking in with his suggestions and feedback, occasionally offering to show us a Green Day song on his guitar. He’s already a talented player, and he easily kept up with everything we were doing.

The next morning we were at the breakfast table by 9:00, scarfing oatmeal with Craisins (a dietary trick I’ve since adopted). I plugged a couple of mics into my Macbook and we proceeded to lay down the basic demo tracks using just acoustic guitars and vocals. Then Chip plugged in the bass I’d brought over, and laid down the bass parts for all the songs. He’s not just a guitar player who plays a little bass, like I am. He’s a true bassist. That became evident when all his bass tracks were captured on the first take. I played bass on exactly one song, the easiest one, and it took at least half a dozen takes to get through it without driving the train right off the tracks.

Stephi and Jace returned home mid-afternoon, after spending the day at the mall in order to give us our space. She asked us if we were finished. We said no. “We could go back out,” she said, “but we’ll need more money.”

They stayed, but busied themselves in other areas of the house so we could press on with our demos. At one point that afternoon we were interrupted by a knock at the front door. It was a guy who stopped by to look at a guitar Chip had advertised for sale on craigslist. We guitar fanatics buy and sell instruments all the time, but letting one of your axes go is always hard to do. It’s like breaking up with a girlfriend. I sat on a kitchen chair and watched as the guy strapped on the beautiful Jimmy Vaughan signature Strat, and Chip plugged him into an amp for a test drive. The guy was a phenomenal player, and played a few nimble runs up and down the neck.

After a bit of small talk about their respective bands, he made Chip an offer. Chip accepted and the guy closed up the guitar in its case and left. Chip plugged the bass back into the amp and sat down. “Where were we?” I was a little taken aback at his nonchalance, but I know he was trying to hide the twinge of pain he surely must have felt at letting that Strat go. I asked him about it, and he just shrugged. “Kid needs braces. And there will always be other guitars.”

So we wrapped up our ten demo songs and Chip took me to a dive bar where he swore the burgers were even better than at Waddell’s. He was right. They rivaled the venerable Mo Club burger. Outstanding, almost good enough to forgive the place for letting a huge colony of fruit flies take up residence. Eating with one hand and waving the air above your plate with the other.

From there we drove out to Northern Quest casino, where we tracked down his dad. The old man was out from Missoula, having a little adventure weekend, and it was a kick to hang out with him for a while and have a beer as he played live keno. He talked about all these strategies he’d employed at this game, but nothing ever really caught fire.

It was after 9:00 when we got back to Chip’s, but we decided that we need to sit down and collaborate on a song while I was there. Jace kibitzed while we kicked around a few ideas. The theme of the album seemed to be an expression of all the things that people hate about Christmas, so we listed a few things. That morphed into the idea of a tug of war between two people, one listing the good, the other listing the bad. From there we hit on the idea of a duet, like George Jones & Tammy Wynette or Frank Sinatra and some broad.

Chip knows Barb loves to sing and has a beautiful voice. So we decided that the duet would be written for her and me to sing. Knowing she can be kind of shy about singing, I asked Chip what do to if she refused to participate. “Simple,” he said. “Just tell her that if she won’t do it, my wife would be happy to.” Fortunately, it didn’t come to that. “I Can’t Believe It’s Christmastime Again” is not an easy song to sing, and it took Barb a few weeks of practice. She was hesitant to go into the studio. In fact, her vocal track on that song was the very last thing to be recorded on Off White Christmas.

Once Chip and I got the song finished, we fired up the laptop and recorded our demo. He sings the woman’s part, and his voice is so tender and high that I was tempted to press him into singing that for the actual recording. But thankfully we stuck to the plan.

I loaded up my gear in the morning, and after a fabulous breakfast prepared by Stephi, I said farewell to the Whitsons and headed back to Missoula. As I drove past Coeur d’Alene, I listened to our demos. The songs were solid. It was only two acoustic guitars and a bass, but I could hear the piano, the drums, the harmonies, the jingle bells, all the other parts we planned to add in the real recordings. I knew we had a great album underway.

The next step would be to round up the musicians for the recording sessions, which we would handle at the Hilltop Basement Recording Complex. Or, as my family calls it, our daylight basement.

(This is my account. Chip’s account, which differs in some crucial ways, will appear in this space tomorrow, along with Part 2.)

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