Laurie Lewis & Tom Rozum,
Winter's Grace
(Signature Sounds, 1999)

Winter's Grace is not confined to the narrow week of Christmas. Although it contains several carols, both traditional and modern, it has more of a general wintery feel to it. The album calls itself a collection of "traditional and contemporary songs for the holiday seasons with fiddle, mandolin, mandola, guitar, string bass, banjo, harp and voices." It does come down a little heavily on the country side for my tastes, but that may be the banjo or Laurie Lewis' voice, which is reminiscent of June Carter Cash.

Winter's Grace begins with what seems to be a common theme in modern carols -- an angel wandering the streets with a message that only the pure of heart can hear. "The Messenger" is either the wounded angel or the singer who carries the message of praying for the unfortunate, even if they are angels.

An instrumental track is up next. "The Snowy Road," according to the liner notes, is Tom Rozum's attempt to capture the New England Christmases of his youth. To me, it captured the first song all over again.

"If We Make It Through December" is a Merle Haggard song, and the album picks up here. I found myself tapping my feet and bopping my head throughout the track. That's an odd reaction to a song about a man who's lost his job and doesn't know if he can buy his daughter presents. But the song has a cheerful country feel to it nonetheless.

The next piece is a slightly updated version of a classic hymn. Wisely, the duo let vocal harmonies carry the piece. The simple country sound works very well here. This was one of my favorite tracks and I would often skip over the first three to get here.

The album returns to middle ground with "Wassail Song," which reminded me of something you'd hear at a Renaissance Faire -- lots of repetitive instrumentals and places where the audience could join in.

Another favorite of mine is track 6, "The Gift." It's a version of a Mexican fairy tale about a young girl who tends a wounded nightingale, who ends up singing for the Christ child. Rozum plays a bouzouki, which, since it's a Greek instrument, combines oddly well with the guitar, mandolin and harp to produce a very Mexican mood.

Next up is a bluegrass tune, "Christmas Time's A-Comin'." By this point in the album, I didn't want to return to the sound of the first tracks. It's okay, but nothing special.

"Hot Buttered Rum" is about the dreary winter season which can only be saved by the singer's sweetheart, his "sweet maple sugar, honey, hot buttered rum." The melody is pretty and Rozum's voice is nice, but the lyrics made me laugh, which I don't think was the intent.

Lewis and Rozum play mandolins on the instrumental "Heiligste Nacht." Very nice background music for decorating trees, baking cookies or watching snow fall. This was another song that earned the repeat feature on my stereo.

The title track began in a perfect way for me. I adore carols that are in a minor key. It captures the cold feel of winter for me. The songwriter, Jean Ritchie, was one of 14 children born into a Kentucky hills singing family. Her writing is firmly rooted in old hymns and local ballads. Yet another good song on this uneven album.<

"Cold Frosty Morning" closes the album with another fiddle/mandolin/banjo instrumental. I would have preferred leaving the album after "Winter's Grace." Then an unbilled traditional carol sneaks in at the end. "Sleigh Ride" is a great country/bluegrass toe-tapper that makes up for the other instrumentals on the album.

Taken as a whole, Winter's Grace is uneven. There are songs that I will always skip over and others that I'll listen to over and over.

[ by Tammy Dotts ]

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