A welcome discovery for me on Youtube this Advent has been a family bluegrass band from Branson, Missouri.
It would appear that tens of thousands of others have also been directed by the Youtube algorithms to The Petersens, who are made up of sisters Katie, Ellen and Julianne, playing fiddle, banjo and mandolin respectively and alternating on lead vocal; brother Matt on guitar; their friend Emmett on dobro (I didn’t know what it was either!); and Karen, or ‘Mama’ Petersen on double bass. Their musicianship is fantastic, their vocals and harmonies sublime, and what’s more they all seem incredible humble and unassuming. Each one is super-talented and yet they all happily stand back and play for the group and allow someone else to take the glory. Katie and Ellen are positively glowing with pride whenever their ‘baby’ sister Julianne takes her turn on lead vocal.
I can especially recommend their cover of Coldplay’s ‘The Scientist’; they do the best version I’ve ever hear of the old classic ‘Country Roads’; and Dolly Parton’s ‘Jolene’ gets not just perfectly mixed vocals but everyone in the band doing wonderfully tight and inter-weaving solos on their different instruments. Everyone, that is, except for Mama. She just stays in the background and keeps on laying down her solid bass line.
I was taken by Youtube one day to Ellen Petersen being auditioned for American Idol, which seemed a bit of a contrast in terms (she explains in an interview that the American Idol set was passing through her town and she did it for a bit of fun). She’s shown in the clip playing her banjo with effortless precision and singing along beautifully and then Jennifer Lopez, the head judge, inexplicably cuts the audition short. I wonder if she’s a bit jealous of this very talented and very lovely young woman in front of her, who is given rightful and fulsome praise, and a ticket into the final, by the two male co-judges. Then as Ellen is walking away J-Lo asks if she can play such a song. Ellen returns and starts to play the song in question and is joined by the two male judges who sing on either side of her and are having a whale of a time. That Ellen is able to spontaneously play a song on demand and in such a situation is impressive. What is perhaps even more impressive is how she is able to allow the two ‘celebrities’ with her to shine. She is the true star there.
Youtube took me another day to U2 doing ‘I still haven’t found what I’m looking for’ with a gospel choir in Harlem. It begins with Bono singing and The Edge playing at the front and the choir gradually introducing their lovely, uplifting harmonies, which seem to come straight from heaven. And then there’s a point where Bono allows himself to step away from the spotlight and stop singing and the Edge puts his guitar down, and that’s when those Harlem angels absolutely nail it.
We are told that angels sang at the birth of Christ. Who were those celestial beings that sang at an event that was never going to be on the front page of the Bethlehem Gazette? Whoever they were, I’ll bet they laid down a good tune, with some sublime harmonies and with no one angel hogging the limelight. And what about their unusual audience that starry night? Shepherds, who were outcasts in their community because staying out in the fields at all hours meant that they were unable to observe the normal rituals of the Jewish faith, and who might as well have been a bit tipsy, since they were known to have a little toddy to keep themselves warm. And then those three mysterious characters who had followed a star and who arrived with gifts that the mother of a newly-born wouldn’t exactly find that practical!
And what of the mother in that scene? This Advent I am seeing Mary a little bit as I see Mama Petersen in those Youtube videos: content to stand back and allow her beautiful and talented child to shine in all of his incredible glory and to touch the hearts of those who behold.
PS Once you’ve checked out The Petersens on Youtube you might like to have a listen to a Christmas song I wrote some years ago. The violin part is played by my eldest son Kieran: