ROBIN & LINDA WILLIAMS

"The First Christmas Gift"

Red House

TOM PAXTON

"Live in the UK"

Pax

The happy moments of Christmas would not be as sweet if not for their contrast to unhappy times. Most Christmas recordings ignore this truth, but Robin and Linda Williams seize on it to make "The First Christmas Gift" a breath of fresh air in an overcrowded, cliche-ridden field.

Singing, on Steve Earle's "Nothing But a Child," of a newborn child guiding "a weary world into the light of day," the Williamses evoke both the weariness and the light in their country-folk harmonies. Backed by fiddler Sam Bush, mandolinist Jimmy Gaudreau and multi-instrumentalist Kevin McNoldy, the Shenandoah Valley couple also tackle a pair of black gospel hymns as well as hillbilly Christmas songs by John Prine and Roger Miller.

But it's on their four originals that the Williamses make their biggest contribution. The title track uses a singalong melody to make the case for Christmas despite the "crowded days on hurried shopping trips." "On a Quiet Christmas Morn" captures that eerie sensation on Dec. 25 when the world suddenly seems emptied of traffic and noise. "Shotgun Shells on a Christmas Tree," the tale of a family so poor that the young daughter picks up spent shells from a rabbit field to decorate an otherwise bare tree, will probably become a bluegrass standard.

Tom Paxton's new "Live in the UK" is just what the title promises: a souvenir of his 2003 tour of England. The 18 songs (all originals but Phil Ochs's "There but for Fortune") include his topical satires, a few engaging new songs and such classics as "The Last Thing on My Mind," "Ramblin' Boy" and "Bottle of Wine." Paxton's comic banter is underwhelming, but his singing is as charming as ever. But what makes this set special is the picking and singing of banjoist Cathy Fink and mandolinist Marcy Marxer on 14 songs.

-- Geoffrey Himes

Appearing Saturday at the Birchmere.