Robin Bullock never set out to make a name for himself as a Christmas musician — but here he comes this weekend, returning to The Palace Theater in downtown Maryville to perform his annual Celtic Christmas concert.
“I always loved Christmas music, and I always loved the season; I’ve been doing an annual Christmas concert with my old group, Helicon, but that was as far as it went,” Bullock told The Daily Times recently. “One year, on Christmas Eve, my parents asked me if I would play Christmas carols on my guitar at their church, and I got so much response to it that I wondered if it was something that might work on the concert stage.
“I started doing some show — The Palace Theater was one of the first — and it just took off, far beyond any expectation I had. It immediately became something popular, and these places wanted me back the next year and the next, so then I started making Christmas CDs, and those have been my top sellers. This is my busiest time of the year.”
That’s saying a lot, given his litany of accomplishments and various endeavors that rival those of his old friend, national flatpick guitar champion and Palace Theater owner Steve Kaufman. Bullock began playing guitar when he was 7, initially inspired by Doc and Merle Watson, Norman Blake and John Fahey. His apprenticeship years were spent at fiddlers’ conventions, bluegrass festivals and Irish seisuns, mastering the subtleties of a half-dozen instruments in both American and Celtic styles. Today, he’s recognized as one of the few musicians who can successfully blend the ancient airs and dance tunes of the Celtic lands with the roots music traditions of the contemporary music.
His holiday shows, which occasionally feature fingerstyle guitarist Steve Baughman, feature a variety of holiday classics, all with a Celtic touch, on any number of the instruments he specializes in: the six- and 12-string guitars, cittern, mandolin, piano and bass guitar. It’s an intimate, soulful performance that’s become a holiday tradition for Bullock, he said.
“I look forward to it every year — coming back to these places about the same time every year and seeing people who have been coming for years and new people as well,” he said. “It’s been wonderfully rewarding.”
Tradition is a valuable commodity to a man like Bullock, who embraces musical ones and treasures personal ones. He grew up in suburban Washington, D.C., and his parents still live in the house in which he was raised; until he moved overseas to live in France for 13 years, he spent Christmas there, attending the Christmas Eve church service at which his holiday concert tradition was born.
This year, he’s come full circle, he said: His marriage recently ended, and he moved back to the United States. After years of spending the holidays overseas with a group of other expatriates who heralded the holy day’s arrival with revelry, he’ll be back in D.C. this year, in the house in which he grew up.
“I’m sort of reinventing Christmas for myself, and in a way that’s going to be bringing things full circle,” he said. “For me, this is a year of casting off old things and starting new things.”
Something else new: His show this year is a solo affair. In years past, he’s brought Baughman with him, but this year, he wanted to get back to the style of performing that improved his technique and virtuosity in the first place.
“Years ago, I decided to focus on beauty and depth and grace and intimacy rather than power, and since deciding to focus on that, I’ve had people tell me the most amazing things,” he said. “I think they’re saying these things because the music I’m playing taps into something very deep in people, and I see myself as a vessel for it and not as somebody entitled to take credit for that. I’m simply the instrument through which the music is flowing.
“For me, music has been my anchor for years, and the same thing appeals to me about Celtic traditional music as it does Christmas carols: simplicity, the strong sense of melody, the power. It’s the directness of a really straightforward, powerful melody that goes right for the emotions, and when you combine that with the celebration and traditions of Christmas, you get something very deep.”