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Laurelyn Dossett’s gathering

by Jordan Green

Old time and the symphony meet for winter tale

From the Green Room in the basement of Meymandi Concert Hall in Raleigh, a cascade of banjo notes can be heard trailing down the hallway from the dressing room shared by Joe Newberry and Mike Compton. Soon, the virtuosic voice of Rhiannon Giddens Laffan — classically trained but steeped in traditional music practices — fills the air with operatic scales.

Newberry and Compton are first to appear in the Green Room, a performers’ lounge whose walls are actually painted in a salmon color. The two are dressed in black pants and black vests. They both wear horn-rimmed glasses and neatly trimmed beards, although Compton’s is short and Newberry’s is filled out to a grandfatherly brush.

The fact that within an hour they’ll be onstage with a symphony orchestra doesn’t seem to faze them a bit. Newberry owns up to only enough pre-performance jitters to “bring focus.”

“We know what we’re doing,” he says. “And if we don’t, we’ll make it up.”

They’re professionals, to a one. A Missouri native, multi-instrumentalist Newberry has been living and playing music in North Carolina for almost three decades.

He has appeared with the old-time string band Big Medicine on “A Prairie Home Companion.” As a day job, Newberry works as the public information officer for the NC Department of Cultural Resources, and he brought some of his expertise on the state’s folkways to the symphony for its “Blue Skies and Red Earth” and “Blue Skies and Golden Sands” programs. He has also appeared with the symphony twice, so tonight’s performance won’t be much of a stretch. Newberry is equally comfortable at a house concert, a festival or a grand hall such as Meymandi.

Likewise for Compton, a student of Bill Monroe’s mandolin style and, of late, a member of Elvis Costello & the Sugarcanes. Throughout the 1990s, Compton worked closely with John

Hartford, a musical visionary who both penned the country-pop standard “Gentle on My Mind” and mined a tradition of Mississippi River string-band music.

Giddens Laffan, a Guilford County native, is no less transcendent in her vocation. Trained in opera, she made an artistic U-turn after college with an immersion in contra dancing and black string band music, leading to an apprenticeship with Mebane fiddler Joe Thompson — a living link to the black string-band tradition. Along with two other young, black musicians, Dom Flemons and Justin Robinson, Giddens Laffan formed the Carolina Chocolate Drops, whose meteoric success has brought them a Grammy award and worldwide acclaim. Giddens Laffan is also a first -rate fiddler. In the Green Room, she seems to be completely focused on preparing for the performance, avoiding small talk and distraction.

Laurelyn Dossett, the convener of this gathering, is equally accomplished as the other three. Wearing a shimmering blue dress and cowboy boots, she seems slightly more frazzled than the rest, as perhaps she should, considering that she has written the songs that are about to be premiered and collaborated with arranger Aaron Grad to ensure that a four-piece, traditional string band will mesh with an orchestra, comprised of upwards of 50 classical players.

Taking up the guitar and songwriting while raising three daughters with her husband in Greensboro, Dossett distinguished herself with a short-story writer’s attention to detail and narrative in her band, Polecat Creek, while rooting herself in the old-time tradition by soaking up as much as she could from practitioners such as Alice Gerrard. In 2006, Dossett established a creative partnership with Triad Stage playwright Preston Lane that has yielded four musicals, including Brother Wolf and Beautiful Star: An Appalachian Nativity. One of Dossett’s songs, “Anna Lee,” was covered by Levon Helm on his Grammy award-winning album Dirt Farmer.

Dossett’s varied interests and track record of fruitful collaborations made her a natural candidate for the North Carolina Symphony to commission an original song cycle for its A Carolina Christmas program. She said during an interview a week before at the Tate Street Coffee House in Greensboro that, while she might not get to realize some of the great experiences that come out of working consistently over a sustained period of time with one group, she doesn’t have to worry about getting bored. The projectbased rhythm of her career provides for “intense periods of work,” she says, “whether it’s writing plays — or sometimes I’m in the play — making records or performing.”

Grant Llewellyn, the Welsh-born musical director of the symphony and tonight’s conductor, slips into the Green Room and takes a seat at a bar table. Wearing a brown corduroy jacket, he looks utterly relaxed. His easygoing comportment and sense of delight carry over to the stage, but his performances — gracious engagement with audiences and masterful direction of musicians — are imbued with excellence.

Llewellyn confers briefly with Dossett about her cues. He instills confidence.

The working relationship between the two dates back to March 2009, when Dossett performed her song “Remember My Name” from Bloody Blackbeard production — one of her Triad Stage collaborations with Lane — with the symphony. During the tour, Llewellyn asked her to write a song cycle for a holiday concert. She agreed and then went home to look up the term “song cycle” on Google. She had already written a collection of Christmas songs for Triad Stage, so she felt compelled to do something different with this project.

The Gathering: A Winter’s Tale In Six Songs is not specifically tied to a particular holiday; it could be about any celebration from late November through early January. The six-song collection follows a narrative thread that mines themes of individual journey and family reconnection amidst of backdrop of the season’s darkness and cold.

Trying to mend a cold a week before the premiere during the Tate Street Coffee House interview, Dossett describes how the collection germinated as a unified body of work.

“The prodigal son [theme] is, of course, Biblical,” she says. “It’s also part of the canon of old-time ballads. Instead of a prodigal son, I have a prodigal daughter. That’s kind of my way in. The winter night sky is also a major part of it. That beginning song sets the stage. It’s dark; it’s winter. The night sky is introduced as a character. She’s the mother; it’s benevolent.”

“Gathering Night” is sung like a prayer: “Night is watching o’er the candle/ Old as shadow, cold as stone/ She parts the darkness for the candle/ It is the light/ The light that leads the traveler home.”

“Lights in the Lowlands” inventories the emotional contents of the journey home, tugging between encouragement and anxiety: “Cold tears, December nears/ Oh, why did I wander and roam/ Old fears for souvenirs/ Returning with nothing to show/ Should I follow the lowland light home?” “Redbird,” the third song in the collection, is a rollicking oldtime celebration, fulfilling the promise as the family gathers for the big day — a riotous house overflowing with aunts and uncles, chores, food and drink, and, finally, dancing.

Displaying a writer’s touch, Dossett makes deft use of detail to sketch characters and scenes that are likely to elicit a sense of personal recognition among listeners: “Martha, she’s always early, Michael, he’s always late/ Riley always brings a banjo, Robin always brings a date/ Becky, she skips the ice, Bobby makes the drinks too strong/ Aunt Jenny kisses twice, Uncle John hugs too long.”

When the song cycle was commissioned, Dossett initially proposed Giddens Laffan as the vocalist. Llewellyn rejected the idea, saying that Dossett had to perform, although Giddens Laffan could participate.

“Right off the bat, I thought of Rhiannon, because for this kind of collaboration you want someone who is very strong in the folk tradition but who is virtuosic,” Dossett says. “She has both of those going for her.”

Giddens Laffan sang the Christmas carol “O Holy Night,” in the Triad Stage production of Beautiful Star. Her performance of the song is also included in the symphony’s A Carolina Christmas program and as a bonus cut on The Gathering recording.

Dossett, Giddens Laffan, Compton and Newberry had all taught their respective disciplines at the Augusta Heritage Center in West Virginia, described by Dossett as a kind of “summer camp for grownups.” Newberry and Compton also play together as a duo. Dossett also recruited Jason Sypher, a bass player she knew from the Clifftop festival in West Virginia. Sypher would record with the string band, but bow out for the symphony premiere, with the classical musicians handling the bass parts.

“We made the record partly because we wanted to,” Dossett says. The symphony would include only three performances over two days, and Dossett added that the CD was produced “with the hopes of doing December shows for years to come.”

From the inception of the project as proposed by Llewellyn in 2009, it wasn’t until August 2011 that the five artists who comprise the string band were able to clear their schedules to work together. They converged in a cabin in the woods near Whitsett for five days to record, with Joseph DeJarnette engineering. Greensboro artists pitched in to support the project: Abigail Seymour shot the photo for the back cover, and filmmaker Harvey Robinson produced a documentary-style promotional video. Molly McGinn, a singer-songwriter who has collaborated in the past with Dossett and a former journalist, wrote a publicity piece for the symphony program.

In the meantime, long before the Whitsett session took place, arranger Aaron Grad received a demo of the songs in the mail and set about transcribing them. They met in Raleigh in February, Grad recalls during an onstage interview conducted by Llewellyn at the symphony premiere, “and holed up in an office with a guitar.”

Grad says when he scored the songs for the symphony the goal was to have the string band and the orchestra “come together not as distant, far-apart creatures,” but as a unified piece. Grad, like Llewellyn, treated Dossett as an equal, and each party approached the collaboration in the spirit of trying to make the sum greater than its parts.

At Llewellyn’s prompting, Dossett describes the differences in their respective approaches to music.

“Oh, you mean the fact that I can’t read music?” she says. “I can read a little bit, but I don’t work in that world…. In old-time, the tradition I work in, it’s a knee-to-knee kind of way of learning music.

“When [Grad] showed up with these songs,” she adds. “I burst into tears because I’ve never seen my songs in sheet music before.”

A string band is an easy sell for this symphony audience, which has been exposed to orchestral pairings with folk music from the “Blue Skies” programs. The North Carolina Symphony has also collaborated in the past with musicians in the jazz and alt-country fields such as, respectively, Branford Marsalis and Tift Merritt.

Following the symphony’s variations on “Joy to the World,” a Hanukkah arrangement and a selection performed by the Concert Singers of Cary, Dossett and her band make a preliminary appearance onstage before the premiere of the song cycle, with Newberry opening the traditional “Rise Up Shepherds” a capella. Giddens Laffan’s vocals on “O Holy Night” are magisterial, combining the plaintive quality of a mountain ballad with the crystalline excellence of a classical performance.

Following intermission, Dossett and Giddens Laffan enter from opposite ends of the stage as the song cycle opens with the quiet and hopeful “Gathering Night.” They sing in harmony as the orchestral accompaniment rises almost imperceptibly from near silence, lending a magical, “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” quality to the piece.

During “Lights In the Lowlands” Compton adds tasteful fills on mandolin. Four basses from the orchestra thump underneath the delicate layering of voices and traditional strings as the song gathers force. Then the song opens into a space for the orchestra to embellish the melodic motifs of the arrangement.

Out of the brooding atmosphere of the first two songs, “Red Bird” materializes with Giddens Laffan’s bracing a capella vocal: “Wake up darling and light the fire/ The redbird’s singing on the telephone wire….” Then a pause, and Newberry’s banjo comes in like fire from his fingertips. The next verse follows with paced instrumentation, and Giddens Laffan lights into a fiddle solo with furious intensity. The four string-band musicians trade vocal on Dossett’s lyrics, which are humorous and poignant by turns and always descriptive. The acoustic guitar, mandolin, banjo and fiddle explode in abandon jam. The orchestra answers with a full-force demonstration of melody and power.

The cycle — on CD, it clocks in at just over 20 minutes — seems to be over almost as quickly as it has begun. But there are still three more songs. The Concert Singers of Cary handle the quieter “Redbird Lullaby. And “String of Pearls” and “Diamonds In the Pines” finish out the set.

The rapturous audience rises involuntarily to its feet. The sound of hollering travels from the back of the hall. It’s a triumph.

A Dec. 6 performance of The Gathering and Beautiful Star by the string band at Triad Stage in Greensboro has sold out. Bassist Jason Sypher will rejoin Dossett, Giddens Laffan, Compton and Newberry for the Triad Stage performance, and the five will take the song cycle to a private house concert in Philadelphia and the Winery in New York City.

Then, in January, Dossett begins another project, and the players go their separate ways.

Llewellyn recently told Frank Stasio, the host of North Carolina Public Radio’s “The State of Things”: “The chemistry works exactly the same, whether it be Laurelyn Dossett or Lang Lang, a classical pianist at the top of his game. And that’s a critical dynamic between the conductor and the soloist. Where there is innate musicianship, whether it be country music or beach music or bluegrass or opera, it’s my job to identify that and make the connection with the artist, to put the artist at ease and try and bring out the very best in the orchestra. So I don’t set any different standards for different genres of music or musician.”

Dossett shares that spirit. “The musical world is full of people — there’s a lot of cynicism out there,” she says while mulling the topic of cross-genre collaborations. “When you meet people who are such great collaborators, it’s energizing, and it makes you want to play music all the time. Which is what you want.”

To purchase a copy of The Gathering: A Winter´s Tale In Six Songs CD, visit www.gatheringsongs.com.

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