CHRISTMAS IN CAROLINA REVIEWS
I found Bill Leslie's warm-hearted Christmas in Carolina difficult to classify, at least in terms of most of the holiday fare I've been receiving in recent years. Though there are elements of new age, these are mostly knit inside relatively traditional arrangements; while there are several Celtic and Irish instrumental flourishes, their signatures are sometimes quite faint; and while the entire recording could be classified as Christian, there is no overt religiosity in evidence here.
What is in evidence is a mostly original effort: eight of fourteen selections are Bill Leslie compositions. The mood and the arrangements--particularly on the title cut--remind me of the song Shenandoah from the 1962 movie How the West Was Won. This mood was effected primarily by arrangements featuring Sherry Buchheit's violin and Linda Metz's flute. Overall, Leslie's offering conveys a distinct sense of nostalgia by using orchestration common to that period, a period that was itself brimming with sentimentality and nostalgia for "simpler times".
On this CD, the six familiar favorites help to inscribe a holiday signature on Leslie's originals. His own songs are sweet-spirited and emotive but are altogether more "wintry" than "Christmassy". Leslie's voice is soulful, but rare: he sings only on his own composition Ring of Evergreen and on the spiritual Sweet Little Jesus Boy.
This is a fine recording, and one that deserves to be played in its entirety on those long winter nights with snow falling outside, a fire in the hearth and a warm cup in hand.
An award-winning anchor for WRAL News in Raleigh, Bill Leslie knows quite a bit about Christmas in Carolina from personal experience, and he translates these emotions beautifully in his holiday release. This is a gentle Celtic/folk music experience, with Leslie personally crafting eight of the 14 seasonal songs. The album is largely instrumental, but Leslie lends vibrant, yet understated, vocals on three tracks ("Road to Bethlehem," "Ring of Evergreen," and "Sweet Little Jesus Boy").
Christmas in Carolina is a richly rewarding work of art. The fine liner notes reveal personal bits about each track, letting the listener know what special meaning each piece holds for Leslie. The tone is intensely lovely, so just sit back and enjoy the Carolina experience. The pure air carries a hint of evergreens fragrance, and the magnificent Appalachians hold court in the distance, dusted with snow. The music is sweet, uplifting, and calming.
This offering is finely-crafted and well-executed throughout. The introspective, tender tone has a simple--almost universal--appeal. Celtic whistles provide a blissfully bright voice that lightly travels over many numbers, while rich cello strings lay a deep foundation. Really, everything works well on this release. I especially enjoyed "Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming"; Bill Covington's delicate arrangement makes this gorgeous piano piece a true standout. The album features a most moving and excellent close, as Leslie sings the spiritual "Sweet Little Jesus Boy" with the barest guitar accompaniment.
Breaking news! Bill Leslie's Christmas in Carolina will take you south for the holidays, and you may never want to come back. So lovely!
Bill Leslie's "Christmas in Carolina" Starts at Home
Proctor's Preludes: Notes on the Music Scene Non-Daily Newspapers Edition Monday, November 7, 2005
RALEIGH, N.C.--When you listen to Bill Leslie's "Christmas in Carolina" CD, you can't help but wonder if the miraculous Christian heritage events connected with the birth of Jesus might have occurred just around the bend or down the road a piece, or maybe just across the line in the next county somewhere.
That's because Leslie and his harmonious ensemble of instrumentalists and vocalists have succeeded in crafting a truly remarkable portrait of the legacy of Christmas in the history of the Old World and the New as something which could have unfolded in just the sort of place Carolinians North and South like calling home.
And in "Road to Bethlehem," one of eight original vocal and instrumental compositions on the "Christmas in Carolina" CD [http://www.billleslie.com], singer-songwriter Leslie brings the entire sweep of the Christmas experience panorama down to the most familial of ties that bind, having dedicated the song to his grandmother, of whom the songwriter says in the CD's jacket notes:
"'Road to Bethlehem' is dedicated to my grandmother Annie McKesson Leslie. She was a 20th century pilgrim of Bethlehem. Her daily goal was simple: to seek the light or goodness in each person she met. She learned to discover the spark of holiness in the manger of the soul."
Other originals summoning forth geographical, cultural and personal memories from Bill Leslie's own Carolina life include the evocative Christmastime homecoming testament and title song for the CD, "Christmas in Carolina," the Old Salem-inspired "Moravian Gift," "Appalachian Winter," "Waiting For William," "Ring of Evergreen," "Swannanoah Snow" and "Cradle of Hope."
The sparkle of seasonal imagery is further illuminated by an ensemble of brilliant and accomplished musicians bringing the voicings of such instruments as violins, cello, flute, hammered dulcimer, piano, bass and percussion to these finely honed renditions, balanced with interesting and articulate arrangements of such Christmas traditionals and standards as "In the Bleak Midwinter," "Away in the Manger," "Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming," "The First Noel," "Silent Night" and, to close out this inspiring concert recording, "Sweet Little Jesus Boy."
And the many pleasing and stirring Celtic whistles that Leslie himself plays on songs throughout the CD might for a moment make you feel that the musical presentation has been transformed and transported far from the Carolinas to help us appreciate how folks contemplate the wonder of Christmas across the ocean in Ireland or England, Scotland or Wales. But when Leslie adds some of his graceful Blue Ridge hearth-and-home acoustic guitar chords and fingering patterns to the mix, we are brought back home to our own Carolina corners of the South, reminding us that this Morganton native is no stranger to the traditional acoustic music legacy of Appalachia. Far from it, for he grew up just down the road from Doc!
As for us newspaper types who like to see a good product get to the right destination in a timely fashion, we will just have to reconcile ourselves to the fact that, like Charles Kuralt before him, Raleigh's WRAL-TV morning news co-anchor is "one who got away" and found a good journalism home in the world of television, thus being spared some of the more splendid miseries of falling behind on a newspaper deadline schedule although Bill Leslie certainly knows what it is to be ready to go on the air with a newscast at any hour of the day.
But as far as linking the mysterious and awesome dawning of the time of Jesus Christ in far-away Bethlehem and the inspiring and joyful story of Christmas to the mountain ridges, foothills, valleys and sandy plains in our own region of this continent, music enthusiasts from West Jefferson in northwestern North Carolina all the way to Charleston in southeastern South Carolina are likely to discover that Bill Leslie's "Christmas in Carolina" couldn't possibly get lost in a hasty search for available television channels, for this CD lands right on the front doorstep just like a good newspaper should.
--DAVID PROCTOR McKNIGHT