By Jim Schutze
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For Hunter Hall, this holiday season is different from any other he's experienced in his 28 years. At the beginning of October, the singer and his band Folk Angel began recording their third album of Christmas music, something they've done every year since 2009. Around midnight on October 22, Hall received a phone call from his mother. She was worried. She hadn't heard from his father, Danny, who days before had retreated to Hot Springs, Arkansas, to write and think.
Nothing was out of the ordinary, though. It was fairly common for Hall's father to take a weekend trip alone when he had a lot on his mind.
He made a few phone calls to his father's hotel and then finally to the Hot Springs Police Department, who said they would investigate. A few hours later, at 3:30 a.m., Hall got a call from the Hot Springs police. His father was dead. Even worse, it was suicide.
"He struggled with depression really bad, and no one realized the depth of it," Hall says only weeks later. "He had hit some hard times with some stuff ... then in a weak moment, he did it."
His voice is shaky, but he steadies it after a few seconds as he recounts the night he heard the terrible news. The season that is supposed to be the happiest of the year has become the opposite for Hall, his mother and his brother Daniel, who plays in Fox & The Bird and Bethan with his fiancée, Jessi James. Despite the grim circumstances, Hall has an air of peaceful serenity, one he says he finds in his Christian faith and the comfort of friends and family.
His closest friends — Folk Angel members Caleb Carruth, Jeff Capps and Ryan Duckworth — all sit nearby on Carruth's porch in Frisco, waiting out a November storm. They talk about the band's latest offering, the aptly named full-length LP Comfort & Joy, recorded only a few feet away inside Carruth's home studio.
Hall says working on the album was good therapy for him. It helped take his mind off the painful circumstances, and more important, drew him closer to his friends and family.
Unlike the making of most albums, it allowed all the families to be together. A few nights a week, the kids would go to sleep upstairs and the wives hung out in another room while the four members hashed out their versions of holiday classics. The only thing it has cost the band is time.
The returns, though, along with the quality of music and the length of the albums — the first two offerings were EPs — have grown every year.
"The first year it was like, 'Man, we can buy some Christmas gifts," Hall remembers fondly. "Last year ... Jeff and I and our families and a couple of other people went on vacation."
Despite the tragedy surrounding the making of Comfort & Joy, the release marks the band's biggest year yet. It peaked on the Billboard Folk Albums chart in the No. 4 position, and the band has sold more than 1,500 units along with more than 3,000 individual song downloads, enough to afford each member and family a vacation just about anywhere. And there's still a week until Christmas, when the album will be all but obsolete.
While money is a nice added end-of-year bonus, the challenge of creating something out of nothing has been a bigger driving force than the payoff. "We all have jobs and make money enough to support our families, so it's not about making money," Carruth says. "It's about what we can achieve with low commitment."
If the success of this year's release is any indication, though, the band's level of commitment has increased significantly, especially considering they never tour or play gigs.
Unlike the previous two EPs, the 11-song Comfort & Joy traverses several genres, blending folk, rock and even hip-hop and spoken word. "The Christmas Tree," the album's only original song, is a standout track for its warm, catchy hook. The rest of the album, save for a few musical interludes that feature Hunter's brother Daniel on the saw, are traditional holiday classics that belong to the public domain, which means no royalties need to be paid. Still, the band isn't satisfied with just doing carbon copies of songs.
"All of us were kind of tired of the same old arrangements of the same old songs," Hall says. "So we were like, 'Let's try to do it different, change the melody a little bit.'" The results sound drastically different from the traditional versions, yet still familiar.
The biggest change happened when the band invited friends to contribute. Most of the time it works: North Texas duo Shane & Shane's addition to "Deck the Halls" is stripped-down and quaint. Other times, though, it doesn't translate: The contribution of Houston's Robbie Seay Band to "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" weighs the song down with minor-key drama, rung in with a trashy gong. Perhaps the heaviness is fitting. After all, the album takes its name from the song's chorus ("O tidings of comfort and joy"). And for all the lighthearted tunes, there is a melancholy thread that runs throughout.