My friend Billy Ricketts creates a ten-song list of his favorites each year. I got his list today and have been lost since I opened the email, lost in those riffs and lyrics. If David Crosby had anything new in the past year, he’s always on this list. This year, “Curved Air” is number four. Cory Henry and the Funk Apostles are number ten with their cover of “Stayin’ Alive.” Billy boasts eclectic tastes; his playlist is one of the first graces of every new year. I’m grateful for this token of friendship, this tie that binds.
My number one from Billy’s list is the new grass of Sarah Jaroz. She’s only twenty-six but has produced a lot of music, graced many stages, and scored millions of appearances in living rooms around the globe thanks to YouTube. Since I don't do Spotify and my sons are all out of the house, I'm increasingly and woefully out of touch with new music. Sarah’s songs have close to a million hits, and thirty from me just this morning.
Besides Sarah Jaroz, my musical highlights this year were few but significant.
I wrote a song about the plains. It came to me while stranded in an airport waiting for my connecting flight to a Chicago beset by thunderstorms. The flight remained grounded, but the song took wing and made, at least, wobbly flight as my homespun songs tend to do. I know not of what I sing, of course, singing about those vast plains. Not yet. Soon, however, I’ll live there in a town with a name almost as cool as Romance or Folly Beach called Champaign where spring comes slow, and messy weather blows cold, cold, cold. When I woke up today in my warm bed in South Carolina, it was 31-degrees below zero with wind chill in Champaign. Rachel and I can’t wait to get there, though we feel such a range of emotions to leave the Greenville area. I’m coming from a great congregation in St. Giles and going to a great congregation in First Presbyterian. May God bless the passage about which I can’t help but sing.
Mandolin Orange was a sweet musical spot last year. They sing about the South in which I’ve lived and about which I’ve read and written my whole life. Their song “Wild Fire” about race, civil war, and shameful strains in the modern South rings like a wake up bell or a battle cry. I hope it’s the former, but these are divisive times.
Another musical highlight was that I got to work with Mark Erelli. The circumstances couldn’t have been more unfortunate; Mark sang for an untimely funeral I conducted for a hero and friend at St. Giles named Skip Miller. I have long-loved Mark’s music from the day that Skip first gave me a CD he had burned of one of Mark’s early songs, “Northern Star.” Mark’s music shuffles through my CD player in my car. Sometimes I have to pull over and just watch the clouds go by.
Skip’s service marked the end of a summer of tremendous loss: my mom in June, Billy Strickland, and Skip Miller—all great saints at St. Giles. In August I got word that a seminary professor and friend, David Bartlett, had suffered a devastating stroke in Chicago in June. Most weeks, his wife powerfully chronicled his fragile ups and tragic downs on a Caring Bridge blog. On top of this, we packed, prayed, and sent our youngest for his freshman year at the University of South Carolina. Our big house felt big, empty, and quiet. But I could hear voices at night, voices of the people we had lost or were losing or who had graduated and gone. Each of these saints wove stories, which I can still hear in their own voice. And while none except John Mark were known for their singing, I heard high harmonies and saw flashes of their wide, happy smiles. But by summer’s end, I wasn’t waxing poetic, I was just sad.
With fall, I was numb. Churches looking for a pastor called for interviews. In October, David died at Yale. I wrote emails, sermons, letters of recommendation, and was trying late at night to write a novel about a woman who felt numb like me but for a world of different reasons. Sarah Jaroz's cover of Prince's "When Doves Cry" describe the teen years of my protagonist Maggie Henry as her family convulsed and ripped apart while her parents bitterly fought. When doves cry, indeed. A third of the first draft is written.
My son Benjamin’s concerts with jazz ensembles and choir at Furman University were great fun. These evenings approached the sublime. Guest artists brought their touring bands, music, and advice. Students showed off what they were learning, and they learned fast from year to year, concert to concert. It was like watching flowers bloom right before your eyes.
Not to be outdone, my son John Mark and the Men and Women’s Choruses at the University of South Carolina filled an old Columbia, SC, church with song one balmy November evening. Rachel and I sat closely together on the pew. The night was respite in a harried, hard fall.
Seeing music live always brings vitality, joy, and a certain kind of religious vision. I sometimes lament that I don’t get out much to catch live shows. My wife reminds me that every time you go to a church with a choir you get a live show. She’s right. Our choir, musical guests, and fill-ins at church play and sing their hearts out each week. I imagine God smiles ear to ear as they do. Trumpet, flute duets, harp, violin, voice. At the family service on Christmas Eve little Cohen played on our Steinway. We could hardly see him over the choir rail. It was lovely, really.
And I still sing a few songs most every night after everyone has gone to bed. I pull out my guitar and play a few originals. Sometimes the dog comes in and gives me a listen. Mostly I’m alone, dusting for God’s fingerprints in the story that is my life.
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Billy Rickett’s music list covers the bases. There’s an old hit from Toto on a remastered anniversary disc and other odd, artful contributions he loved in 2017.
I’m sure he’d agree with me that one of the greatest songs most of us hear every winter and we get to sing it once—if we’re lucky—on Christmas Eve is “Silent Night.” I got to sing it twice. The second time, at McCarter Presbyterian, it was the choral response to the benediction at their morning service of Lessons and Carols. It was the cold morning of New Year’s Eve and Rachel’s last Sunday service as the pastor of that neat, little church. I sat with Benjamin and John Mark on the second row and we belted it out.
At St. Giles a week before on Christmas Eve, “Silent Night” conferred another sort of benediction. Songs sound different at night. They sound different when night tingles with dark and winter and the verge of Christmas. Most churches, I guess, do it like we do. The organist gets us started singing, and by the middle of the song, the organ has become more sparse. By the final verse we are singing it on our own, all the voices soaring solo without the benefit of instrumental accompaniment. Sans organ, you hear the warbles and monotones, the delicate tenors and the heft of altos and basses. Meanwhile, the dark church fills with pricks of light as we pass the flame person-to-person from the Christ candle. That song lifted on the wings of a few hundred other voices, in a darkened room illumined only by candlelight, resonates like no other song at no other time, warm, melting candle wax gluing your fingers together, voices rising together, something pounding on the inside, something beckoning from the outside.
Christmas. The flicker of light in darkness. Transcendence.
The lyrics say it best, both as benediction and illumination for the path forward. If we sleep in heavenly peace, may we wake to walk in and work for peace. Even difficult years awaken to new beginnings. And wherever we go, God goes with us.
Happy New Year.
I was born and raised in the sight of water in Hampton, Virginia. I was baptized and nurtured in the Presbyterian church. There was never a time when weekly worship attendance, the giving of ...