SALT LAKE CITY — It was never exactly the plan to become a Christmas band, but in the nine years the Lower Lights have been clapping their hands, stomping their feet and banjo-pickin’ to gospel greats, somewhere along the way, the Utah-based folk group became synonymous with the season.
But that doesn’t surprise too many in the band. Although the Lower Lights perform throughout the year, it’s the band’s annual run of December shows that have become the most popular.
And with those holiday shows right around the corner, running Dec. 3-8 at Kingsbury Hall, we spoke with three members of the Lower Lights about their favorite Christmas songs — and as expected, the results were a mixed bag of Christmas standards, lesser-known Christmas tunes and songs only tangentially connected to Christmas.
Getting rowdy with ‘Greensleeves’
“I hear a call, now will I answer? Forsake my all to serve another?”
Those are the opening lyrics to the country song “I Hear a Call,” written by Tony Arata, the songwriter behind Garth Brooks’ No. 1 hit “The Dance.” It’s also mandolin player Mark Horton Smith's go-to Christmas song — and a song you’ll likely never hear sung around the Christmas tree.
“It’s definitely not a traditional Christmas tune, but the message is really great,” Smith said. “‘I hear a call, now will I answer?’ It’s this urging … to do something good, to extend a helping hand to somebody in need. So in the very general sense, it appeals to goodwill and helping your fellow man.”
But when it comes to picking a traditional Christmas song, Smith points to a simple melody he believes “has already passed the test of time” — the English folk song “Greensleeves.”
The Lower Lights perform it as an instrumental, speeding it up midway through to showcase the skills of fiddler Ryan Shupe and to also feature some mandolin, banjo and pedal steel.
“It’s almost like a Celtic dance. … We wanted to put some more energy into these hymns and songs that sometimes have been lost in translation. If you look at the history of a lot of these songs … (many) originated from folk tunes that came from Europe, and they were sung differently. They did have passion in them and they did have emotion. Sometimes I feel like we’ve lost that,” Smith said. “Some people might not agree, they may feel like it’s irreverent or maybe spiritually insensitive that … we’re gonna maybe even get rowdy with some of these things, but … it seems to have resonated with some people.”
‘The songs come back every year’
Picking a favorite Christmas song isn’t an easy task for Lower Lights singer Cherie Call, whorecently released her second Christmas album, but after a few minutes of deliberating, she lands on a song that’s been in her life for so long she can’t even remember when she first heard it.
Call, who grew up in Arizona, heard “Mary’s Lullaby” every year at the Mesa Easter Pageant for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Written by fellow Arizonan Wanda West Palmer, “Mary’s Lullaby” is a song Call often performed with friends at church, Christmas parties and talent shows. Now, it’s a song she brought to the Lower Lights and recorded for the band’s 2013 album “Sing Noel.”
“At the time, my mother was battling cancer and I thought that it might be a small way that I could honor her, to see if we could record one of her favorite songs,” Call said. “Thankfully, she made it through everything, but she was on my mind … when I brought that song for us to record.”
Singing “Mary’s Lullaby” with the Lower Lights is a moment Call cherishes each year. In addition to bringing back childhood memories, the song also gives the singer greater appreciation for a mother’s love — something she understands even more now that she’s a mother.
“It’s a lullaby that’s sung from Mary’s point of view to her child. I think everybody thinks of Mary and thinks, ‘Wow, what an honor to be the mother of Jesus.’ And I am sure that’s how she felt, but I think she also felt … pangs of sadness when she realized what she was going to have to see and go through,” Call said. “Being a mother, I think so many times when my child is sick or is hurt or even has a broken heart, I wish I could trade places with them. It’s so hard to see them go through those things — and they have to because that’s just part of growing up — but especially being a mom, I really understand that feeling of just wishing you could take that away somehow. I can’t imagine how immense of a feeling that must’ve been for someone like Mary.”
For Call, the Christmas season doesn’t really begin until she sings “Mary’s Lullaby” with the Lower Lights.
“I look forward to these shows every year. It’s my favorite part of the Christmas season, performing-wise, for me,” she said. “I’ve loved Christmas all my life. The songs come back every year; there’s just something kind of magical about that.”
From Austria to Salt Lake City
For Dominic Moore, the highlight of the Lower Lights Christmas concert comes near the end — and not because the singer is anticipating heading home and going to sleep.
In December, the large group of friends and musicians wrap up their shows by gathering together around a single guitar and inviting the audience to sing along with them to “Silent Night.”
It’s the way it was performed for the first time 200 years ago.
When Joseph Mohr, a priest in a small village near Salzburg, Austria, was preparing for a Christmas service in 1818, he took the words he'd penned two years earlier to “Silent Night” — originally written in German and titled “Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht” — to a nearby friend and musician. According to Moore, since the organ in the priest's small chapel had broken down, Mohr asked organist Franz Gruber to set the music to guitar.
“At that time, it was a more unusual (request) for a church service,” Moore said. “But (the arrangement is) so simple and it’s so beautiful, and it’s been translated into countless languages. … It wasn’t originally an English language hymn, but somehow it translates into something that we can really connect to and love.”
When Moore stands onstage and sings “Silent Night” with his Lower Lights friends, he can’t help but think of that first performance long ago on Dec. 24, 1818, featuring a single guitar and church congregation in a small Austrian village.
“Those are some of my favorite experiences with these Christmas shows,” he said. “It’s just a great time to focus on the simplicity of the music and of the message. … We love to have the audience connected to us, we love to have them singing along … singing these beautiful words together. It’s touching.”
If you go …
What: The Lower Lights
When: Dec. 3-4 and Dec. 6-8, 7 p.m.
Where: Kingsbury Hall, 1395 Presidents Circle
How much: $15-$35