JUDY COLLINS with JONAS FJELD and CHATHAM COUNTY LINE – Winter Stories (Wildflower/Cleopatra)

Winter StoriesA seasonal collaboration between Collins, Norwegian singer-songwriter Fjeld and the North Carolina bluegrass outfit, recorded over the course of just a few days, Winter Stories brings together reworks, covers, and new material, getting underway in stirring fashion with their take of Stan Rogers’ classic ‘Northwest Passage’, the verses shared between Collins, Fjeld and Dave Wilson with all three pitching in on the chorus, backed with piano, mandolin, banjo and fiddle.

Collins dips back into her songbook for three numbers, a lively bluegrassy ‘Mountain Girl’ and, as the closing track, ‘The Fallow Way’, previously one of three new songs on her 1990 Forever anthology, and the piano-led ‘The Blizzard’, a number about getting stuck in a Rockies snowstorm with “a dark-headed stranger” which originally appeared in its full seven-minute splendour on 1990’s Fires of Eden, here trimmed to just six.

The soaringly duetted title track is a new contribution by Fjeld, essentially a reflection on how “the light will come again”, be that in the seasons or emotional life, as indeed is ‘Frozen North’, Hugh Moffatt’s lyrics again using the winter cold as a metaphor, here warmed by the spark of love. Fjeld is also the author of ‘Angels In The Snow’, a song Collins previously recorded six years ago for Christmas With Judy, now revisited as a duet.

There’s two new songs to emerge from the collaboration, both Fjeld and Wilson co-writes, the frisky scuffling bluegrass ‘Bury Me With My Guitar On’ and the moodier, jazz-coloured ‘Sweet Refrain’ that, accompanied by piano, sketches a picture of a lonely old cowboy tracing out a melody alone in some room that brings back memories of lost friends and lovers.

The two remaining tracks are both covers, Collins taking solo lead on Jimmy Webb’s 1977 classic ‘Highwayman’, the story of a man (or here, in her silken tones, a woman) reincarnated as a thief, a sailor, a dam builder and a starship captain and a number she’d been meaning to record for several years but somehow never got round to. The other is another jewel in the 70s SoCal crown, Collins again in the spotlight for a lovely reading of Joni Mitchell’s inadvertent Christmas standard, ‘River’, a seasonally set break-up number generally assumed to be about her relationship with Graham Nash and escaping painful emotional roots.

Winter Stories is not a Christmas album in the conventional commercial sense (nary a carol in sight), but even so it perfectly captures the bittersweet feelings the time of the year inevitably evokes.

Mike Davies

Artist’s website: www.judycollins.com