The lights in the lowlands were real. Laurelyn Dossett made up the rest during a songwriting retreat in the mountains at Fancy Gap, Va., just across the North Carolina state line.
“During the day, looking down on Surry and Stokes counties, you couldn’t see buildings or cars or anything because it was snowy,” she said. “It wasn’t until lights started coming on at dusk that I was like, ‘Oh, I’m not by myself on this planet.’”
The scene inspired “Lights in the Lowlands,” one of the tunes that make up a holiday song cycle called “The Gathering.” Dossett and some collaborators will perform “The Gathering” in a series of shows the next two weekends, including a Dec. 7 concert at the Carolina Theatre.
“I’ve been really fortunate to be a part of holiday programming in Greensboro since 2006,” Dossett said.
Those shows include “The Gathering” as well as a couple of Triad Stage musicals, “Beautiful Star: An Appalachian Nativity” and “Snow Queen,” which featured songs she wrote.
Dossett wrote “The Gathering” on a commission from the North Carolina Symphony, a connection that came via yet another Triad Stage production. She and several other singers toured the state with the symphony, Dossett performing “Remember My Name” from the Triad Stage production “Bloody Blackbeard.”
Travis Creed, who worked for the N.C. Symphony at the time, was on that tour.
“At night, a bunch of us on the staff and some of the musicians would all get in the hotel rooms while we were on tour and jam and play traditional music,” he said.
Symphony officials who were originally from Oregon and Wales witnessed these jam sessions and saw firsthand how important traditional music was to North Carolina, Creed said. “The Gathering: A Winter’s Tale in Six Songs” premiered in November 2011, with Dossett accompanied by Rhiannon Giddens, Joe Newberry and Mike Compton.
“This was the first time I ever had to write the whole narrative myself,” Dossett said. “It’s called a song cycle, but it’s almost like a short opera. I needed to figure out what the story was, and what I was trying to say, and how I wanted people to feel.”
She opted for a collection of songs that capture the joys and sorrows of the holidays, from the apprehension of “Lights in the Lowlands” to the joyous homecoming of “Diamonds in the Pines.” “Redbird” evokes the frenzy of a large family gathering: “Will tries to crack a window / Bill tries to crack a joke / Mark tries to sneak a whiskey / Matt tries to sneak a smoke.”
“She really did a great job of capturing the entire experience, not just putting a shiny polish on it,” said Creed, who now works as director of artistic operations for the Winston-Salem Symphony.
Dossett has dusted off the symphonic arrangements of her songs from the N.C. Symphony and will revisit them Nov. 30 and Dec. 1 in shows with the Winston-Salem Symphony at R.J. Reynolds Auditorium.
“I’m real excited to do it with a symphony again,” Dossett said. “It’s fun to do without the symphony, also, but doing it with the symphony is like jumping on a train. It’s a big ride and a lot of sound, and somebody else is conducting.”
The concerts with the Winston-Salem Symphony will feature Dossett and friends with the full 75-member symphony and about 50 members of the Winston-Salem Chorus, Creed said. The shows will also include Christmas singalongs and a visit from Santa Claus.
They will be the first pops concerts conducted by the symphony’s new music director, Timothy Redmond.
Giddens is busy with other projects these days, so Dossett will perform “The Gathering” this holiday season with Compton, Newberry and April Verch, a singer, fiddler and dancer from Canada who now lives in Asheville.
The Greensboro and Boone shows will shift the spotlight exclusively to Dossett, Newberry, Verch and Compton. Newberry, a banjo player, singer and songwriter who made numerous appearances on “A Prairie Home Companion,” performs and records in duos with both Verch and Compton.
“I tell people, ‘I’m in my two favorite duos,’” Newberry said.
Verch is an acclaimed fiddler who has won numerous awards and performed in the opening ceremonies for the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. Compton, a singer and mandolin player, was mentored by Bill Monroe and has worked with everyone from John Hartford to Elvis Costello.
Newberry and Verch do their own holiday show when they’re not performing “The Gathering.” Newberry was pleased Dossett chose Verch to take the parts originally performed by Giddens.
“Because I have been working with April, I thought she would be a really great person to step in and do that part, and add her own twist to things, and her own strengths,” Newberry said.