The fiddle and violin live as twins.
They match down to the bow and strings — two different names for the same instrument. Aside from a few minor variations sometimes found in some newer versions, the separation comes down to style. One gets played in a symphony set by composers, the other on back porches and in bluegrass festivals.
Laurelyn Dossett now tries to bridge that gap, performing a preview of The Gathering on a cold Friday night at the Gas Hill Drinking Room in Winston-Salem. Dossett performs the six-song long cycle, taking listeners through a story of a daughter in her debate to return home from her travels for the holiday season. The work merges classical music with Appalachian roots, and acts as half of the Winston-Salem Symphony’s upcoming Carolina Christmas concert.
“I think of it more like a short folk opera,” Dossett said.
Dossett sits in front of a small crowd, pausing in between songs to speak about the music. Thanks to a grant from the NC Arts Council, as part of the Year of NC Music, the Symphony and Dossett trace the two genres back to a time where they more commonly intertwined. Many of the instruments used in bluegrass, folk and other roots music historically find themselves in classical contexts, while some now only differ in technique with their modern orchestral equivalents.
“The musics aren’t different,” Dossett said. “Everything about the categories they get put into are completely false and manmade.”
The Gathering acts as part of an effort from the Winston-Salem Symphony to spotlight more local music. Travis Creed, general manager of the symphony believes the purpose of the organization stretches past performing classical pieces from famous composers or playing hour-long orchestral works.
“I think an orchestra is here to serve the community,” Creed said. “We want to serve the community and show our community.”
Dossett built the song cycle with the inclusion of a symphony in mind. The piece, originally commissioned by the NC Symphony, leaves room for a string band, a full chorus and a symphony by allowing the music to guide the story rather than lyrics alone. Dossett also held tight to a few key themes she considers touchstones to creating a Southern holiday scene.
“The broader backdrop for all that family and connection,” Dossett said, “is, to me, the pull of the moon in the winter night sky.”
Dossett strums her guitar, ringing out a melody titled “Lights in the Lowlands” that begins the song cycle. The lyrics act as a dialogue between a set of parents and the prodigal daughter that Dossett sees as a motif of Southern Appalachian stories. Images of a night sky and flickering town lights seen from atop a mountain range appear as she works her way through the first song.
“There are lights in the lowlands tonight,” she sings. “They’re a promise you’re never alone.”
Among the large chorus and symphony, four key instrumentalists keep the core of the show firmly in roots music. Mike Compton on the mandolin, Joe Newburry on the banjo and April Verch on the fiddle combine with Dossett’s guitar, making for a sound that, aside from the banjo, could be found on a classical stage.
In the height of The Gathering, Dossett attempts to hop from line to line in a song titled “Red bird.” The song takes the audience through the hustle of a large family celebration, using four different main singers and lyrics laid on top of one another. From the names used, to the images of children causing havoc and lengthy pre-dinner prayers from grandparents, Dossett pulled the scene from her own family. Audience members clap and stomp in bluegrass tradition, causing a slight echo for a moment in the cozy venue.
“Red bird sing and call the gathering day,” she belts.