DOUBLE DIPPING

Around the Steve Wariner household, Christmas day is more appropriately tagged "The Big Event." And not just because of the joyous wintertime holiday - December 25 also happens to be Steve's birthday (which accounts for his middle name, Noel).

"Yeah, you could say that this is my favorite time of year," says Steve with a playful grin. "Christmas Day around our house is pretty special - it's an allday celebration."

Today, Steve's getting an early start on the festivities, decorating the recording studio at his Nashville home in seasonal style. Like one of Santa's helpers, he quietly places gifts under a small tree for wife Caryn and sons Ryan and Ross, which they'll open on Christmas Day. Earlier, he hung some wreaths to add holiday spice to the recording room. And in between all this decorating, Steve has somehow managed to whip up a batch of chocolate chip cookies.

This year, Steve's also cooked up a tasty holiday gift for his fans: a brand-new CD called Guitar Christmas, which he recorded at his studio. It's available on Steve's website, stevewariner.com.

The title couldn't be more accurate. Guitar Christmas features Steve, considered one of country's premier guitarists, performing instrumental versions of such standards as "Winter Wonderland," "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town" and "Silent Night."

"The inspiration for this started last year," explains Steve. "Every Christmas, we visit my folks in Kentucky. My dad, who is 75 but still teaches music, always likes to get the guitars out and crank up some Christmas music. Last Christmas, he told me that I needed to record some of those songs, and that got the ball rolling."

The album rolled along easily, with only one tiny stumbling block. "The songs weren't hard to do, but it was so tempting to sing along," says Steve with a laugh. "I had to keep telling myself that this is supposed to be a guitar album, and no vocals."

He breaks into a wide smile as the sweet tones of "White Christmas" sweep through the sound system. Inspired by the melody, he picks up an orange guitar given to him by his mentor, Chet Atkins, and begins strumming the tune, which also appears on Steve's Christmas CD.

"I remember those Christmas albums that Chet used to do," notes Steve with a sigh. "Nobody could do them like he could. But maybe this album is carrying on some kind of tradition."

Steve's a big believer in tradition, especially around the holidays. And on Christmas Day, the Wariners stick to time-honored family rituals with two celebrations - one honoring Christmas, and one just for birthday-boy Steve.

"The family kind of splits everything in half," says Steve. "Caryn is really good about not letting the two mix in with each other."

The family spends Christmas Eve at home, watching tapes of holiday movie classics like A Christmas Story and It's a Wonderful Life. Christmas morning breakfast is always prepared by Caryn's son, who visits each year. "I like that part," laughs Caryn.

Steve chimes in. "We open all our Christmas gifts during the day," he says. "Caryn always cooks the Christmas dinner - turkey, dressing, the vegetables, the whole bit. She also bakes these German sugar cookies that are out of this world."

"But Steve makes the pies!" adds Caryn.

It's true - Steve is pie maker of considerable household renown. "The usual request," he laughs, "is for my lattice cherry pie. But I can make apple or most any kind."

The evening is saved for Steve and his birthday gifts - and he admits that he can't wait to start ripping away at them. "Oh, yeah!" he exclaims, much like a kid on Christmas morning. "After we're all resting and exhausted from Christmas, I think, 'Hey, wait a minute! I've got more coming.' And that's when I get my birthday presents and cake."

But what's the big deal - after all, he's "doubled up" on Christmas-birthday gifts all his life, right? Well ... not exactly.

"That's what everybody thinks, that I always got double presents as a kid," says Steve. "But there were some years, probably during lean times, when my folks would say that they'd do my birthday later. I remember some of my friends used to say, 'Why don't you just move your birthday to July or something,' but I wouldn't have it any different."

He also wouldn't change anything about his current career path. After more than two decades of success with major record companies - with such hits as "Lynda," "Holes in the Floor of Heaven" and "Two Teardrops" - Steve decided to become his own boss a couple of years ago. He formed his own label, Selectone Records, giving him the freedom to experiment and make music the way he wanted to do it.

"It's fun to be your own master, so to speak, especially on the creative side," he declares. "Like with this Christmas album. I could do the songs at my own speed and try out different guitars for each song. That wouldn't happen in a regular studio because it costs money when you take too much time to do something."

These days, Steve is taking more time to concentrate on his writing. "I have several new things that I've finished, and I want to get some of those out to other artists," he says. "I really don't know when my next album will be, but that's OK. That's another advantage of having your own label."

Steve spends countless hours in the home studio laying down tracks. "I've had the studio about three years," he explains, "and you can hardly get me out of here on some days. I lose all track of time."

Occasionally, he welcomes a few of his buddies over, like Keith Urban and Bryan White, to write songs or do some informal recording.

"They love the atmosphere of this place," says Steve, pointing to the spacious backyard. "It's out away from everything, real quiet."

But soon, peace and tranquility will give way to holiday hustle and bustle. "It's a busy time, but we love it," he says, grabbing a second chocolate chip cookie. "Of course, when it's all over, Caryn will always say, 'All right, now, next year, we're cutting back.' But you know what - we never do."

Holiday cheer spreads across his face. "It's just too much fun!"

-- Photo by Ronald C. Modra, Story by Bob Paxman

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