A Very John Berry Christmas

John Berry takes you behind the curtain of his yearly Christmas tour. “It is a concert, not a church service,” the country artist told Pollstar.  “Our goal is to make the seats shake a little bit, rattle the lights a little bit, and make it where you’re feeling something.”

Berry was in the holiday mood when we caught up with him just days before he launched the 20th annual “O’ Holy Night” Christmas tour.  The tour shares its name with Berry’s first Christmas album, released in 1995. Since then his holiday efforts have included 2000’s My Heart Is Bethlehem, John Berry Christmas and  O Holy Night Live.

While chatting with Pollstar Berry described his love for Christmas and what Dec. 25 means to him.  He also expressed his passion for touring and recounted how his annual holiday outing came about in the first place.

What does Christmas mean to you?

The birth of Jesus Christ.  It’s as simple as that.  Secondly, it’s just a great opportunity to be with family and friends, reconnect after a busy year.

How do you keep the “O’ Holy Night” tour fresh, yet still perform the holiday classics people love?

We just keep changing things around a little bit. … I don’t mess with songs too much.  There are a lot of artists who will do funky versions of classics [but] I try not to do that.  I try to keep things pretty straight ahead and the versions are, melodically, what we remember them being like as kids.  To me, that’s Christmas music.

I dunno.  There’s something about how we present it. Someway we just make it fresh each year.  It’s funny.  We have people come to our Christmas concerts and say, “I dunno how you change it up so much every year.”  We don’t want people to come and hear the exact same thing every year.  We try to put a fresh spin on things but we’re still true to what the songs are supposed to be.

Those moments before the show starts, is there a different vibe felt by you and your band compared to when you’re playing gigs through the year?

I think so.  We have a different focus.  The whole focus of this tour is to focus on Christmas.  We live in a culture that has drifted away from what Christmas is supposed to be.  It’s turned into this generic holiday for a lot of people and it’s kind of been forced on a lot of people by different factions of our population or whatever it might be.  If people want that kind of holiday, they don’t need to come to our show.  That’s not what this is.

Everybody is really excited about this. The band and crew, it’s so much fun.  I do scattered dates throughout the year. We’ll do a weekend here, a weekend there, we’ll do a five-day run.

But then Christmas comes and we load up the bus and all the gear. We go to Marietta, Ga., and we’ll load into the performing arts center at Marietta High School.  The school treats us like royalty.

We live in this theatre for a week.  We rehearse this tour and we get it all ready to go.  Then Friday night we do the first show of the tour. Then the game is on from there.  We’ll load everything up and go to the next city. We’ll play the next night in another city, then we go to Missouri. … It’s really exciting and we love it.

Holiday tours have a built-in deadline in that you can’t keep extending it month after month due to popular demand.  When you finish the last night do you feel like you could go another month?

Absolutely.  I’ll never get burned out from traveling.  I love it.  I told my wife if she wanted to, we’ll sell the house, buy a nicer bus and stay on the road.

What do you think brings fans back to the Christmas shows year after year?

I dunno but I sure am thankful they do. I hope a couple of things.  I hope they come back because they know how much I love doing this, and doing it for them.  And I hope they come back because they get something they don’t get anywhere else.  It’s one of those kind of things … I just think it’s a special show. We present this music in a special way and treat it that way. … And I think people get that.

Do fans ask about the next Christmas tour throughout the year?

Oh, yeah.  The Grand Opera House [in Macon, Ga.) goes on sale at the end of the night for next year.  We’re fortunate that we have some venues that are that way. …  Our goal is 25 [shows].  This year we have 20 and we ended up with a promoter that had two of the shows that fell out and it was too late to do anything about it.  But next year our goal is 25 and we already have eight booked.  I think by the end of January we’ll be halfway [there].

Are there promoters for the tour that have worked with you since the first Christmas outing?

We have some that we’ve worked with year after year.  I have a few promoters that won’t hire me again because in ’97 I had to cancel our Christmas tour because I had vocal cord surgery, and I haven’t worked with them since.  At that time my manager talked to them [and] was like, “What’s a guy supposed to do?  He’s having vocal cord surgery. Hello?  It wasn’t elective surgery.  It’s not a nose job.”  So it was kind of crazy.

Your tour stops include the Annie Merner Chapel at McMurray College in Jacksonville, Ill., and the St. Paul Lutheran Church in Jackson, Mo.  Does playing in a chapel or church add an extra something to the performance?

Absolutely. It’s just awesome.  Just to be there where [people] have come to worship God, to thank him and to praise him and to be in that environment is just awesome.  To be able to present this music in a place like that?  Shoot, come on.  It doesn’t get much better than that.

Does playing any city on the Christmas tour prevent you from going back to that market later in the year?

We space it out.  It depends on the market.  Typically on the tour we open with about a 45-minute set of hits and new songs.  “Then we do about a 15- to 20 -minute intermission and then we do about an hour and 20 minutes of Christmas [music].  The whole night runs a good two hours, 20 minutes.

And we’ve had a few people that came who were not familiar with me at all and just expected to hear a nice, polite Christmas show.  It’s a little more rockin’ than that.  Plus, the country stuff we do, the hits and everything.  It is a concert, not a church service.  Our goal is to make the seats shake a little bit, rattle the lights a little bit, and make it where you’re feeling something.

Before you first launched this tour, were there other artists’ Christmas tours that might have inspired you?

I never saw any.  It all started at our church in Athens, Ga.  Robin and I got married at Green Acres Baptist Church where she grew up going to church.  Our pastor, Fred Rowell, who married us, just recently passed away, he asked if we’d do a little Christmas special.  I was playing clubs in Athens and going to church there with my new bride.  Fred saw something in me that most of other the people in the church did not see.  They were like, “You got to be kiddin’ me.  That redneck boy who stole one of our girls?  You want him to come sing in our church at Christmas?” 

But we did it with the church pianist, my wife and my sister-in-law, Tracy.  The four of us did a little Christmas program.  [It] was a big hit, event then.  They asked us to do it the next year and we added my band from town.  Then the next year we added the string section from the University Of Georgia Symphony, we added eight string players.  It grew into quite an event at our little church.

I was scheduled to record O’ Holy Night in June of 1994.  Just so happens I had brain surgery on May 10th of ’94, the same day “Your Love Amazes Me” was a No. 1 record. How weird is that?

They were canceling the recording session in June and I said, “No.  I need to do this.  I need the distraction.”  So less than a month later I was in the studio recording Oh Holy Night.

I dunno if you’ve ever been through any major surgeries, but it’s really emotional.  The emotional impact they have on you Is pretty incredible.  To be in the recording studio recording a song that’s so beautiful, a beautiful piece of music, was almost overwhelming.  When I listen to that recording, I can hear something very frail in the timber of my voice.  I mean, I was less than 30 days from major surgery, had not sang a lot and it was pretty incredible, at least from my ear.

But what was really amazing, was our violinist, Connie Ellisor, her violin kept going out of tune.  Chuck Howard, our producer, asked her, “Connie, what in the world is going on with your violin?”

And she said, “Well, I’m in here playing along with John singing this beautiful piece of music.  And I’m thinking about the fact that less than a month ago we were wondering if he’d ever sing again, would he be okay.  I’m crying my eyes out, tears are going down my face, dropping down on my violin and the moisture is making my violin go out of tune.”

Something really special just got captured and it’s one of those things people seemed to respond to. … It’s one of those little moments that got captured.

Do you plan on doing the Christmas tour every year as long as you are able?

I don’t think so.  I’m thinking five more years.

Are you looking at five more years for the Christmas show or are thinking about cutting back from performing in general?

I think in general.  I thought I would be done by the time I hit 60, which will be in a couple of years.  We’re in a market of very young men singing, performing and touring.  At some point … we’ll see how it comes.

What’s your favorite Christmas song?

“O’ Holy Night.”  But I do have to say, though, a close second would be “My Heart Is Bethlehem,” a song I recorded that was written by Michael Peterson.

I was at a songwriting retreat [that] was hosted by Miles Copeland in a chateau he owned at the time in the south of France.  A lot of different artists from different genres of music [were there].  At lunch one day I was talking to someone at our table about Christmas projects I was working on that year.  Michael found me later in the day and said, “I overheard your conversation and it brought to mind a song I wrote 10 years ago and never did anything with it.”

We found a guitar and he played me this song.  For the life of me I couldn’t figure out why he never recorded it. It is a beautiful picture of Christmas.  Just a sweet one.

John Berry’s upcoming shows (Christmas tour is bolded):

Dec. 2 – Chillicothe, Ohio, Majestic Theatre
Dec. 3 – Greenville, Mich., Greenville High School
Dec. 5 – Hendersonville, Tenn., Trinity Music City
Dec. 7   Abbott Park, Ill., MacMurray College
Dec. 9 – Sumter, S.C., Sumter Opera House
Dec. 10 – Galax, Va., Rex Theater
Dec. 11 – Corning, N.Y., Corning Museum Of Glass
Dec. 12 – Carlisle, Pa., Carlisle Theatre
Dec. 15 – Gainesville, Ga., Riverside Military Academy
Dec. 16 – Macon, Ga., The Grand Opera House
Dec. 17 – Bremen, Ga., Mill Town Music Hall
Dec. 18 – Augusta, Ga., Imperial Theatre
Dec. 19 – Watkinsville, Ga., Oconee Co. Civic Center
Dec. 20 – Tifton, Ga., Tift Theater
Dec. 21 – Dothan, Ala, Dothan Opera House

Jan. 13 – Kalamazoo, Mich., W. Michigan University
Jan. 26 – Franklin, Tenn., Franklin Theatre
Feb. 2 – Waynesville, N.C., The Strand At 38 Main
Feb. 3 – Forsyth, Ga., Monroe County Schools Fine Arts Center
Feb. 4 – Decatur, Ga., Eddie’s Attic
March 3 – Patterson, Ga., Eagle Station
March 4 – Springfield, Ga., The Mars Theater
April 7 – Prestonsburg, Ky., Mountain Arts Center

For more information, please visit John Berry’s website, Facebook page, Twitter feed, Instagram account and YouTube channel.