Deadlines know no justice. Listening to a post-newgrass folk Christmas album when it isn’t even fall yet shouldn’t work, not even remotely. That it does owes to this disc’s balance of mostly good, mostly unfamiliar contemporary material, a few wisely selected standards, and the robust, masterful playing and harmony singing of Laurie Lewis & Tom Rozum. The spacious, plush sound and arrangements, combining Celtic, bluegrass and classical elements, bear the stamp of some notorious musicians in the contemporary acoustic field, including bassist Todd Phillips and guitarist Mike Marshall, guitarist Nina Gerber and banjoist Craig Smith.
The collection is song-based, focusing on the melodic and lyrical heart of each piece rather than using the material as an excuse for acoustic jamming or wafting into new-age atmospheres. Beginning with Mark Simos’ “The Messenger”, an engaging legend of unexpected Christmas conversion, Winter’s Grace progresses gently through Merle Haggard’s “If We Make It Through December” (sung by Rozum with somber rightness), the traditional “Wassail Song” (associated with the Waterson family), a Mexican-inflected story-song called “The Gift” (previously recorded by Garth Brooks), and the Bill Monroe standard “Christmas Time’s A-Comin’” (done with straight-ahead bluegrass drive).
Closure comes in a suite of two instrumentals — “Heiligste Nacht” and the classic fiddle tune “Cold Frosty Morning” — which offset the Jean Ritchie ballad “Wintergrace”, a sequence of evocative rural images sung over droning fiddle. This is an appealing, exquisitely pretty collection, but never precious, and frequently melancholy and dusky in tone.