One of Charlottesville’s finest traditions is Country Christmas, an annual concert thrown by two of the city’s finest country music acts, Jim Waive and the Young Divorcees and The(All New) Acorn Sisters, with a rotating cast of guest stars and openers. Their upcoming ninth annual event is back at the Southern Café and Music Hall, with Sally Rose as the opening act.
“People shouldn’t miss it.” said Jim Waive. “It’s awesome. I look forward to it every year.” Waive—a monumentally talented performer somehow capable of infusing both sorrowful ballads and lighthearted party songs with a somber, understated integrity —is a natural choice to share the bill with The (All New) Acorn Sisters duo of Sarah White and Sian Richards, who often make guest appearances singing back-up vocals during others’ sets. In addition to their musical talents, the three share a dry sense of humor and biting wit, tempered by genuine holiday cheer and charm.
“It’s about bringing people together to share warmth,” White said. “Not all this running around, thinking about what you’re going to get, but being thankful for the things that you already have. I’m not real religious, but for me it’s an end-of-the-year type thing, a celebration.”
“Sarah and Sian really put themselves into making it a very special evening,” said Andy Gems, manager of the Southern. “They do a lot of decorating, and so much organizing and planning.”
“What’s so fun about it is all the decorations,” White said. “Everyone’s dressed to the nines, people are looking absolutely their finest…and I wish the audience would do the same!” she joked.
White and Richards began playing music together in 2004, along with several other local musicians, under the name Spilt Milk. “We recorded a CD for a friend who was moving to Philly,” said White. “The album was called No More Cryin.” They ended up performing several winter-themed songs together during the first Country Christmas in 2004.
“The first year was kind of a big group hug,” Richards said. Eventually pared down to just a duo, they called themselves the Manger Babies before eventually settling on the Acorn Sisters.
“The first proper Acorn Sisters show was that Harvest Moon event with Bobby St. Ours,” White said. “Originally it was going to be a seasonal thing, we’d do songs about autumn, then songs about winter…”
“We need to get back into that,” added Richards.
In addition to occasional shows during the year, The (All-New) Acorn Sisters reunite every December for the Country Christmas event. “I actually hate Christmas songs,” White said. “I mean, I do like a couple of them. ‘Christmas Time’s A-Comin’,’ we do that one. I learned it from the Reno and Smiley version, which I love.”
The usual Acorns set draws extensively from the Carter Family catalog, older gospel numbers, and classic country cuts, occasionally tempered with goofier fare, like Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers’ “Islands in the Stream.” “We’ve lost and gained a lot of good covers over the years,” said White. “I think Sian kind of resented having to sing the Kenny Rogers part. There’s currently a lot of debate about what’s going in the set list this year.”
Despite annual rearranging, their set includes a show-stopping rendition of the Carter Family’s “Poor Orphan Child” and a tune entitled “The Dog,” a heartbreaking tale of a widower, written by White’s father.
“It’s a fun show, but we do like the sad songs.” said Richards. “Christmas can be sad for people. There’s all this false promise about Christmas, that everything’s gonna be alright, that when you wake up on the morning of the 25th everything will suddenly be fine. There’s a melancholy aspect to the holidays.”
As in past years, a portion of the proceeds from the concert will be donated to the Blue Ridge Area Food Bank, and canned food will be collected at the door to help those in need during the holidays. “We used to just collect the cans,” said White. “But because of the nature of the Food Bank, giving money is actually better.”
“It’s not actually a one-to-one thing,” said Richards, “every dollar you give them buys $4 of food. So it’s much more effective to just make a cash donation.”
“I still like the cans,” White said. “It’s always me with my car full of cans, driving them over. I remember the last year we did it at the Tea House, we had so many people bring in so much food, and I had to haul all those bags of cans down those stairs and around the block out to my car. But I don’t mind doing it, it’s a charity thing. I grew up eating government cheese, people do need it.”
The charitable aspect of the event, the communal nature of the holidays, and the fine musical performances all make Country Christmas the act to catch every December. “It’s a great crowd,” Richards said. “It’s kind of like old-time Charlottesville. I mean, everyone’s each got their definitive idea of C’ville, there’s like 9 million versions of what ‘old Charlottesville’ was like. But to me it feels like a real ’90s Charlottesville time.”
“It’s always been such a nice evening for young and old alike,” Gems said. “We see a lot of the folks you’d expect to see at a show like this, plus a lot of families. It’s really just a nice cross section of C’ville at large.”
Country Christmas begins at 8pm on Saturday at The Southern Café and Music Hall. Tickets are $14 at the door, or $12 in advance.