Music for a Winter's Night

by Kerry Dexter /
Kerry Dexter's picture
Dec 09, 2017 / 0 comments

Winter: one of the hallmarks of the season is that night comes early and sunrise comes late. The stars in winter skies seem to shine more brightly than they do in other seasons. This time of longer nights also invites us in, to communion, connection, fellowship, and quiet reflection -- and to music to accompany all these things.

 Music for a Winter's Night

You will have heard music by Gretchen Peters even if her name is not immediately familiar: Patty Loveless, George Strait, Bryan Adams, and Martina McBride are among the artists who have recorded her songs. For her album Northern Lights, Peters chooses a mix of traditional songs, original material, and pieces by contemporary writers including Kim Richey and Gordon Lightfoot. There are songs which take note that this holiday is sometimes spent alone, there are classic carols and songs of the season, there are flashes of humor, and there are several originals which deserve to become holiday classics. Listen out for one of those, Waiting on Mary, as well as Angels We Have Heard on High with those long glorias from the angels in a way you won't expect, and that Kim Richey song, which is called Careful How You Go. Musical friends sitting in with Peters include Barry Walsh on piano and accordion, and Matraca Berg and Suzy Bogguss on harmony.

Al Petteway and Amy White live in the Appalachian Mountains of North Carolina. It is that landscape and heritage they have chosen to frame the music for their recording Winter Tidings. It's a mainly instrumental outing, with Petteway on guitar and White on mandolin, dulcimer, harp, and other instruments. There's a Celtic touch to some of the music, a lively bluegrass tinge to some, and quiet reflection invited by several pieces as well. It is music that rewards close listening and could also work to create a seasonal atmosphere in background to holiday preparations and celebrations. People Look East, Breakin' Up Christmas, and the pairing of Star in the East/Born in Beth'ny are particular highlights.

Natalie MacMaster and Donnell Leahy draw on landscape and heritage to frame their take on holiday music, as well. They come from a bit farther to the north, she from Cape Breton and he from Ontario. There's a lot of fiery fiddle playing going on, as well as contributions from the couple's six children. Everybody is having a great time and very likely you will too as they take you through a range of popular seasonal songs and well loved carols on A Celtic Family Christmas. Among these are White Christmas, Hark, the Herald Angels Sing, and What Child Is This? "There is a lot of depth behind the melodies and meanings," Donnell points out. "What I love about this record are the layers of ancient instruments, weaving through and around one another to create a Celtic Christmas tapestry." To add to the fun, the family has shared some of their favorite holiday recipes, too.

With Carrie Newcomer's recording The Beautiful Not Yet, words and melodies work well with the stories and emotions of winter holidays, though the album is not a seasonal one. This, though (and Al Petteway and Amy White's album, too) could make just the right gift for someone who does not care for Christmas music, or for whom Christmas is not their holiday. In the title track, Newcomer considers that space of waiting, of living fully with what is while knowing change is to come. On the song Three Feet or So, she brings in the idea that changing the world might seem too daunting a prospect, but what if you looked at what's right around you -- within three feet or so? On Lean In Toward the Light, she offers ideas of hope and connection and the thought that "every kindness, large or slight, tilts the balance toward the light." Long time musical partner Gary Walters on piano and accordion, Natalie Haas on cello, Jayme Stone on banjo, Jordan Tice on mandolin and guitar, and Moira Smiley on harmony are several of the musicians who accompany Newcomer on this journey, which takes her music into the direction of chamber folk. Other songs to listen out for include You Can Do This Hard Thing, Sanctuary, and The Season of Mercy. 

There's a wealth of winter, seasonal, and holiday music to be enjoyed, as well as music which might not be directly seasonal but can go along with the season. There are musicians who skillfully combine both on the same recording, as well.

Matt and Shannon Heaton's Fine Winter's Night is one such album, with traditional carols, jigs and reels, songs from African and Irish tradition, and stories of New England, all told through the Heatons' top class Irish American musicianship. Listen out for the title track, which contrasts the cold clear nights of winter with warmth of gatherings to be found within homes, and the graceful retelling of the centuries old Wexford Carol.

Cherish the Ladies bring together the music of Ireland and America, past and present, seasonal and otherwise, on each of their three holiday recordings. To go along with your winter's night any of them would be a fine companion, whether it be A Star in the East, On Christmas Night, or Christmas in Ireland. Two of my favorite pieces: The Castle of Dromore, which is on On Christmas Night, and All the Valley Down, on Christmas in Ireland.



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.


This article was published in 2016 and updated in 2017