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Emmy Award fingerstyle acoustic guitarist Billy McLaughlin is no stranger to the Kittitas Valley, having played several concert dates in Ellensburg over the years, as well as conducting demonstrations and workshops at the schools in Cle Elum, Thorp and Ellensburg.

His musical project SimpleGifts has been around since 2001. Their livestream of Christmas presentations from the Marine-on-St-Croix, Minnesota City Hall, putting community celebration ahead of commercialization, is needed now more than ever in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, McLaughlin said.


“Even though they have taken away the live audience filling a room, we can still come to you,” McLaughlin said in a telephone interview from Minneapolis. “I’m kicking myself that we weren’t live streaming last year.

“People in Washington could have been getting hip to the holiday music. So, there’s a silver lining for us with all of this depressing stuff going on. We as musicians are finding new ways to reach out to people across the country. We started the series (Nov. 29) and we had people zoom in from New Jersey, Texas, Florida, from Colorado … from everywhere.”

There are no songs like “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” or “Jingle Bell Rock” in this production. SimpleGifts combines violin, Celtic flutes and bagpipes, piano, acoustic guitar and percussion with a three-part female vocals to create a “Modern Old-World” sound.


Like putting a new crest on an old wave, the two male, four woman band puts a modern arrangement to songs like, “O Come O Come Emmanuel,” “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” “Breath of Heaven,” “Away in the Manger,” “The World is Old/Shepherd’s Carol,” and several others.”

Learn from the Masters Music Outreach organizer Larry Birger planned to bring in McLaughlin and Mandy Harvey to Ellensburg back in April, but COVID-19 restrictions closed down shows around the world.

“Billy demonstrates in his work with SimpleGifts, and elsewhere, that he is a consummate musician, arranger, guitarist, vocalist, band leader, producer,” Birger said. “He does it all, and across genres as varied as solo fingerstyle guitar, Celtic, folk, acoustic rock, symphonic, and more.

“He goes beyond musicianship, in all of these, his expansive heart goes out to share life and love with his hearers, especially important amidst the pain of the pandemic.”


According to the website, SimpleGifts is arguably the most successful Minnesota holiday-themed project celebrating exclusively traditional hymns and carols interpreted in modern arrangements.

“… It’s one of the most elegant and listenable Christmas collections of this or any year. “WinterGrace” from the Billy McLaughlin-led local collective SimpleGifts is special,” said Jim Walsh of MinnPost. “Expect modern arrangements with an “old-world” feel highlighting Billy’s signature acoustic-guitar, angelic three-part harmony vocals, bagpipes, Celtic flutes, violin, piano and atmospheric percussion.”


“We always play the night before Christmas Eve and this year we decided to livestream it. Every one of these (shows) are going to be awesome,” McLaughlin said. “To make music with people at the very top of their field, people that are internationally renowned, is special.

“I mean, Laura MacKenzie, with her flutes, bagpipes and everything is incredible. She’s internationally famous. With our vocal harmonizing, each one of these women is a soloist in their own right, but they love singing three-part harmony together.”

SimpleGifts does all its own arrangements, blending its style with the melody and original lyrics. But McLaughlin said if you’re going to do a song that has been done 1,000 times, you better take responsibility for making the music special.


“We’re very proud that there is always something artful. We always take time to make sure that we’re doing something that adds to the legacy of the songs that we’re doing,” he said.

You do not need a ticket or a reservation to watch the livestreams. There is no limit on how many people can join in. The livestreams are free on Facebook and YouTube by logging onto

Rodney Harwood: award-winning journalist and columnist. Lover of golf and the written word. I can be reached at


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