Gretchen Peters: Northern Lights
Christmas is about connection, and about solitude. Change dropped in a Salvation Army kettle, wonder at the miracle of the incarnation, warm embraces from family, greetings from friends familiar and long lost, strangers becoming friends as they wait in lines, sing carols together, marvel at holiday lights and share laughter amid the hurry of the season, and moments, sought after or not, when the joys and sorrows of the season are framed in time spent alone.
Gretchen Peters’ view of Christmas here arises from those moments of solitary contemplation. That sounds as though it’s a reflective set of music, and it is. What you might not expect from that description is that it is also an album filled with joy of the season, occasionally funny, always thoughtful, entirely musical, and filled with peace. It won’t surprise those who know Peters as the writer of mainstream country hits such as You Don’t Even Know Who I Am, Water Into Wine, and Independence Day, to learn that she knows that solitude, connection, and peace all require courage and faith, whatever the season.
She opens with Song for a Winter’s Night, a many faceted look at coping with being alone and missing someone at the holiday season, from Canadian writer Gordon Lightfoot. This moves into The Coventry Carol, a traditional song based on a lullabye, which connects with the ideas in Peters own December Child, a mother’s thoughts looking forward from the manger and back to that moment of Christ as a baby child. Connecting these two through the sequence on the recording is the Appalachian carol I Wonder As I Wander, which in Peters’ take moves from question to affirmation. There’s a jazzy, funny melding of music from Vince Guaraldi (think Charlie Brown’s Christmas) and Angels We Have Heard on High, entirely in spirit of both songs. In another inspired bit of sequencing, Waitin’ on Mary, another song Peters has written, stands next to In the Bleak Midwinter. Waitin’ on Mary speaks of the Holy Family searching for rest and a home, and of people who still find no home and no welcome. “Far away on some dark hill, there are faithful waiting still, who have no hope but still believe -- maybe tonight is Christmas Eve...” Peters sings. Midwinter is a traditional song of learning how to give, how to worship, and how to find a place to do that.
You’ll find similar wisdom, and hope, and joy, in the other songs, including the title track, Northern Lights which Peters also wrote, Careful How You Go, written by Kim Richey and Will Kimbrough, both of which gracefully hold the essence of winter, wonder, solitude, and stillness. There's also Christmas Time Is Here, from Vince Guaraldi, and Silent Night.
If you're reading this in October, or November, or even December, and thinking, this has been a hard year, I don’t want to think about the holidays yet -- yes, you do. This music is companion for your journey.
Peters is better known as a writer than as a singer (at least in the US -- audiences in the UK and Europe seem to have caught on to her singing ability), but she is a very fine one, and her clear soprano has never sounded better or more soulful than it does here. She produced the album along with Barry Walsh, who offers inspired work on piano, organ, and accordion. Suzy Bogguss and Matraca Berg sit in for quiet harmony vocals on Waitin’ on Mary, while David Henry, Doug Lancio, Dave Francis, and Will Kimbrough also join in on various tracks.
Part of the proceeds from Northern Lights will be given to Room at the Inn, a Nashville based group which assists the homeless.
you may also want to see
an interview with Gretchen Peters about the making of Northern Lights
Gretchen Peters : Burnt Toast & Offerings
Barry Walsh : the crossing
listening to Christmas