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Music in the air

The next few weeks will bring the two biggest Christmas-music acts on Earth to Charlotte. First up is the pioneering new-age ensemble Mannheim Steamroller, Sunday at Belk Theater; followed by the more rock-oriented Trans-Siberian Orchestra on Dec. 2 at Time Warner Cable Arena.

Ask Mannheim Steamroller main man Chip Davis about that, and he'll laugh.

"They actually said somewhere once that their goal is to be just like Mannheim Steamroller," Davis says of TSO, calling from his hometown of Omaha, Neb. "But I have a quote of my own when people ask about them: 'Ever have a fly land on your arm?'"

Davis pauses to laugh.

"Nah, it's fine," he says. "They're a totally different thing that doesn't affect our audience at all that I can tell. It's different audiences, different appeals, different demographics. Their audience is more rock and roll and younger, while ours is all over the map. We draw a lot more families."

Davis can afford to be magnanimous because, even though TSO is playing bigger rooms nowadays, Mannheim Steamroller is still miles ahead in the world of Christmas music. The group has sold more than 27 million Christmas albums since 1984, more than anyone else (Elvis Presley is a distant No. 2).

Back in the 1970s, Davis was working as a jingle writer for an advertising agency in Omaha. He co-wrote a series of jingles starring a fictional truck driver, C.W. McCall. The spots were popular enough to spin off a series of singles, including "Convoy" - the perfect encapsulation of the CB radio craze, and a No. 1 hit single in 1976.

"Convoy" was Davis' biggest hit, but it wasn't his first. His run on the country charts started two years before that with "Wolf Creek Pass," a song with a most unusual structure: He used classical composing techniques he'd learned in music school at the University of Michigan.

Davis used similar classical techniques with Mannheim Steamroller (the name means "crescendo"), calling the music "18th-century classical rock." But it was ahead of its time, and Davis couldn't get a record deal. Fortunately, Davis had made a lot of money from his country hits. So he set up shop as American Gramaphone Records and self-released an album called "Fresh Aire" in 1975. It sold briskly, as did a series of follow-up "Fresh Aire" volumes.

Davis entered the Christmas field with 1984's "Mannheim Steamroller Christmas," which took his popularity to a massive new level. An electronic version of "Deck the Halls" cracked commercial playlists, pushing the album's sales past the 6 million mark.

That led to annual Mannheim Steamroller Christmas tours. This year's model is the 25th year, with two touring bands on the road (two more play at theme parks). Davis himself doesn't tour anymore, since he had neck surgery two years ago, but he does go to some dates to serve as emcee.

He also keeps busy overseeing the Mannheim Steamroller brand, which includes books and lines of food and bath products in addition to music. And he's still composing, with a recent focus on music with therapeutic properties. "Ambience Medical," he calls it, and the music is used for medical therapy, on submarines and even aboard the International Space Station.