Music for a Winter's Day
As autumn turns to winter, it becomes a time for reflection, for connection, for celebration. Music makes a good companion for the questions, connections and celebrations this season invites.
Come along and explore music from one of Americana's most creative bands, a top guitarist, and two of the best singers you'll find anywhere, one from Scotland and one whose background is both Irish and American.
The four musicians who make up Rani Arbo and daisy mayhem (Rani Arbo vocals, fiddle, guitar, banjo, cello; Scott Kessel: vocals, percussion, kalimba; Andrew Kinsey: vocals, bass, banjo, ukulele, whistle; Anand Nayak: vocals, electric and acoustic guitar, harmonium vocals) know about questions and celebrations -- through seventeen years of making music together, they have been thinking about life through the prism of those things in the music they create. With Wintersong, they add dimensions of the winter season, both dark and light. There are no dancing Santas or jingle bells (although there are quite a few references to other sorts of bells). What you'll find on Wintersong are classic carols, music from contemporary songwriters, texts you might not have thought of set to original music, gospel songs, and a Cajun song too.
The top class harmony, great lead singing, and impeccable musicianship which are hallmarks of the band's work are very present here, as is inspired song selection. They make the four hundred year old carol Lo How a Rose E're Blooming into a quiet banjo backed lullabye and have all sorts of musical fun with Children Go Where I Send Thee, which comes from the African American tradition. That song is "often covered in a somewhat solemn, teacherly way," says Nayak. "I've always loved its rhythmic exuberance and thought it would be fun to let the song be more of a wild celebration." Julian of Norwich references the work of that fourteenth century mystic and comes from the pen of English poet Sydney Carter. "I grew up listening to this song on vinyl, comforted by the refrain all shall be well again, I know," says Andrew Kinsey. There's the warmth of connection in Hot Buttered Rum and recognition of loss, sorrow, and again that idea of connection giving hope in Chrissy Hynde's 2,000 Miles and Jesse Winchester's Let's Make a Baby King. There's exuberance in the New Year wishes of Bonne Année, and quiet hope rising above sorrow in Ring Out Wild Bells.
Bill Cooley's recording In Search of Home is not a seasonal album, but the music he creates works with the reflective sides of winter's landscapes. Threads of hope and connection run through Cooley's music, too. You'll likely have heard Cooley's work even if his name may not be immediately familiar: for more than twenty years he's worked with Grammy-winning folk and country artist Kathy Mattea, and has also on occasion supported many other A list musicians. Though he has released three earlier albums of his own music, for this one he decided to make a truly solo album -- no horns, no rhythm section, nothing but the man and his guitar. As it turned out, there were a few well chosen exceptions, but for the most part that's what In Search of Home is. "I feel I found new form of expression on an instrument I'd been playing for fifty years," Cooley says, pointing out the idea of it being a truly solo work informed his thoughts from the start of writing the music. So did family. There's a tune, One for Sam, inspired by his one year old grandson, and his twin granddaughters come in for their own tune too, one called Girls of Joy and Wonder. His youngest son Adam turned out to be one of those exceptions to the solo only rule, as he traded licks with his father on Dad's Blues. "Bana is for my wife, " Cooley adds. "It's what our granddaughters call her. It's reminiscent of Nancy Lee, the tune I wrote for her on my first CD." Design was a family project too: his wife's drawings are on the cover and inner panel, and the couple's oldest son Grant did the graphic layout. Old friend Mattea joins in too, offering the only vocal on the project, on Jesse Winchester's song That's What Makes You Strong.
Video of song from Kathy Mattea's album, Calling Me Home.
Emily Smith's Songs for Christmas finds the Scottish singer putting her own mark on well-known songs, bringing to the fore lesser known contemporary and traditional works, and adding two of her compositions to this seasonal collection. Smith, who comes from Dumfriesshire in Scotland's southwest, considers finding reflection in the midst of holiday rush with her original Find Hope, and gives an upbeat rendition of the traditional story song The Blessings of Mary. Christ has My Hairt Aye is another fine offering with traditional words and music from Alan Reid. Smith turns, maybe unexpectedly but quite successfully, to another tradition with the American ballad Heard from Heaven Today. Another gem to look out for is Smith's own Winter Song, which catches reflection and hope framed in winter landscapes. Joining Smith on the album are regular collaborators: Jamie McClennan on fiddle, guitar, vocals, Matheu Watson on guitars and viola, and Ross Hamilton on bass, drums, and vocals. In the video, Smith is joined by Jamie McClennan and Anna Massie...and by an unexpected guest dropping in.
Cathie Ryan's album Through Wind and Rain isn't a specifically seasonal recording either, but there's much on it to go along with seasonal reflection. Walk the Road, the Kate Rusby song from which Ryan took the title, is a celebration of the continuing nature of friendship and hope. The Wishing Well celebrates resilience with a dash of wry humor, while Laura Smith's I'm a Beauty walks the same road from a different perspective. Mo Nion O is a celebration and a good wish for a well loved child. It was written in Irish by Mairead Ni Mhaonaigh; Ryan mixes verses in irish with her own translations of them into English. Liberty's Sweet Shore, written by John Doyle, is an emigration song, evoking connection and distance that go along with this season. Another song which goes along with winter's connections, reflections, and hope is Ryan's take on Roger and Camilla McGuinn's May the Road Rise to Meet You. Patsy O'Brien on guitar, Matt Mancuso on fiddle, and Brian Melick on percussion support Ryan, and John Doyle sits in on vocals and guitar on seven of the tracks.
Each of these artists is on tour this winter season. Leading up to Christmas, you'll find Rani Arbo and daisy mayhem in New England, Bill Cooley on the road with Kathy Mattea's holiday show (he arranged and appears on her album Joy for Christmas Day), Cathie Ryan bringing her Winter's Heart tour to venues in the mid Atlantic and midwest US, and Emily Smith on the road across Scotland. Click each musician's link to learn more.
Kerry Dexter is Music Editor at Wandering Educators. You may reach Kerry at music at wanderingeducators dot com.
You may find more of Kerry's work in National Geographic Traveler, Strings, Perceptive Travel, Journey to Scotland, Irish Fireside, and other places, as well as at her own site Music Road.