Oleta Adams would be perfectly content if Christmas lasted all year long. “The spirit of Christmas is where we’re supposed to be all the time. It keeps you in a wonderful state of happiness and health and joy,” she says. “Whenever you listen to Christmas songs, it takes you back to those very special moments when you are surrounded by family and friends. It brings out a childlike quality just by hearing those songs.”
Five years after her last full-length project, the multiple Grammy-nominated contralto singer/songwriter, Stellar Award and Dove Award nominee decks the seasonal halls with her first-ever holiday album, Christmas Time with Oleta, replete with beloved classics and a handful of personal favorites.
The 10-song set, released by KOCH Records, was produced by the artist, was recorded in Adams’ home studio—the Booth & the Cave—in Kansas City, where she has lived for most of her adult life. She arranged and plays the majority of the instruments, with husband John Cushon on percussion, along with a number of guest musicians, including Lonnie McFadden and Ronald McFadden, who added essential horn parts to two of the songs, and Greg Clark and Tammy Ward Clayton on backing vocals.
“I could roll out of bed and walk down to the recording studio. How can you beat that?”
Adams says of recording at home. She adds, “Oh, I love it here. First, there’s more bang for the buck, but my husband is also from here. When my initial success happened, it made sense to be in the center of the country. I’m from the state of Washington, and that always meant it would take an extra day to get wherever I needed to be.”
These days, Adams maintains a touring schedule that continuously takes her around the world. Year after year, she has shared her vivid versatility with a variety of audiences. With success at pop (first via her 1991 top 5 “Get Here,” deemed the unofficial anthem of the Gulf War), jazz, R&B and a deep spirituality that has aligned her within the gospel community, the performer upholds a reputation as a name-brand marquis entertainer.
“It’s been wonderful,” Adams says. “I’m on the road three weekends of every month, whether it’s a jazz festival in Germany, a salute to Gershwin at the Hollywood Bowl, a Billie Holliday tribute at Carnegie Hall, a church in Washington, D.C., or my own tour in Holland. Oh, yes, we stay busy.”
For Christmas Time with Oleta, the artist queried friends, acquaintances and accommodating strangers on the street—asking what they most wanted to hear on a seasonal set. “I asked what songs really make you feel like it’s Christmas. Nine times out of 10, they said they wanted to hear familiar songs that reminded them of the season. It’s so rare for me to not write for an album, but I got the message.”
The resulting collection contains such consummate holiday compositions as “Let It Snow,” “Silent Night,” “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” and “Winter Wonderland,” all with Adams’ passionate, soul-stamped signature. Lesser-known titles that hold special meaning to the artist are also given her personal stamp, including Amy Grant’s co-written “Breath of Heaven,” Adams’ personal favorite on the album; Melissa Manchester’s co-scribed “There’s Still My Joy,” a song Adams performed with the artist during her annual Colors of Christmas concert trek and which here, features a cello solo by Beth McCullom that Adams arranged; and the spiritual “Alleluia, Alleluia (Peace on Earth),” which focuses on the true meaning of the season.
Another novel reading is “Christmas Time Is Here,” best known as the theme to “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” Adams relates, “That’s a song that really means Christmas to me. It’s usually heard as an instrumental, so we enjoyed recording it in a way that not a lot of people have heard before. I think that the audience loves familiar songs, but they don’t mind if it’s treated in a unique way.”
The album also comes with its share of whimsy. On “Winter Wonderland,” Adams sings the song tongue-in-cheek as an ode to her husband. “John hates to go on walks—especially if it’s cold outside. Even in the summer, he’ll refuse to go down the street for a good power walk,” she says, chuckling. “I wanted this song to sound quirky; everyone knows me for singing all of these serious songs that leave people crying. I wanted to have fun on this one.” True to her word, as the song fades, Adams can be heard joking, “Come on, let’s just walk, I know it’s cold out there, but walk anyway. Don’t you turn around and go back to that house. I’m not going to stay out here by myself.” On a more serious note, she also performs a piano solo on the song.
Adams’ strong faith—as the daughter of a preacher, raised with gospel—is captured in Grant’s “Breath of Heaven,” on which she plays all instruments. She says, “I absolutely love that song. A subtitle for it would be ‘Mary’s Song.’ It’s about the personal feelings of the virgin Mary as she bears the Christ child and how God so favored her as to bless her with His son. She was so virtuous and humble that she said, ‘Okay, Lord, whatever is your will. She knew she was facing an awesome task.”
Christmas Time with Oleta, Adams’ ninth album overall, personifies all that her many fans have come to expect, while representing a personal triumph for the artist. “I’m really thrilled with what we came up with. It feels magical to me,” she says. “We had quite a celebration here.”