The Xmas Men’s first lesson learned in playing Christmas music: Upbeat swing and snazzy suits beat sentimental carols and black turtlenecks.

“We’re Robert Earl Keen’s band, and Robert does a Christmas show every year that we take out on the road,” says guitarist Rich Brotherton, who teams with bassist Bill Whitbeck, drummer Tom Van Schaik and steel guitarist Marty Muse in the Xmas Men.

“He asked us to play some Christmas tunes to open it a few years ago, and we tried coming out in black shirts and playing ‘What Child Is This’ and ‘Away in a Manger.’ And everybody just kept talking.”

They jazzed it up the following year both musically and sartorially, taking the stage in matching white duds. “We played some kind of swing-tune stuff, and that worked good,” Brotherton recalls. “We took some time to try to turn them into a little something that still feels fun and recognizable, but it’s not just what you hear all the time.”

The new approach went over well enough that the four musicians decided to record an album. Dubbing themselves the Xmas Men, they released “Santa Is Real” last year. They’ll have the discs for sale at ACL Live when they play their annual Christmas show with Keen this Saturday, Dec. 19.

See more holiday videos from Austin musicians in our “Seasonal Serenades” feature on

The Xmas Men, from left: Marty Muse, Tom Van Schaik, Bill Whitbeck and Rich Brotherton. KELLY WEST / AMERICAN-STATESMAN