Over the Rhine‘s new Blood Oranges in the Snow fortifies effortless originals (the title track) with carefully chosen covers (“If We Make It Through December”). Husband and wife Linford Detweiler and Karin Bergquist’s elegant piano and vocals shade the tunes throughout.
“Blood Oranges in the Snow is our third Christmas/winter/New Year’s project,” says Detweiler, a longtime Cincinnati resident. “I think Karin and I are drawn to this music. We’ve been writing together for 25 years and are still curious about the Christmas songs that haven’t yet been written.”
CMT Edge: What exactly draws you to holiday music?
Detweiler: I think that it has to do with the fact that our very first musical memories have to do with Christmas programs that we were involved in as children when we were called upon to dress up as authentic Middle Eastern shepherds. Writing Christmas songs is something that has haunted us our entire careers.
Describe the greatest challenge in writing original Christmas songs.
We know that there are great Christmas carols and standards from the American songbook, to be sure, but it just seemed that there was a part of this whole scene that wasn’t being written about. Karin coined the term “reality Christmas music.” (laughs) We try to explore some of the more heartbreaking or real aspects, but there’s hopefully some joy and redemption blended in, as well.
Tell the story behind writing the title track.
That’s about childhood memories. My family lived in Montana for six years. My parents never had a lot of money, but they came up with this scheme that all six kids had to go to a private school in Canada up there on the prairies in Alberta. I was 13. Getting home at Christmastime, crossing the border and the mountain passes, was an adventure that would make Laura Ingalls Wilder lose sleep at night. So some of those memories were tucked in that song. Also, I could always get out of doing the dishes if I would play hymns for my mother while she was washing up.
Did you actually enjoy hymns, or were you just getting out of dishes?
That part of American music fascinates me. I don’t think there would have been a Johnny Cash or Elvis Presley without their mothers’ hymnals. I’m curious about that influence on American songwriting, and it’s something we don’t talk about a lot. Growing up around old gospel music was hugely influential for me. I tried to pack a little of that in that song, but I can’t remember where the phrase “blood oranges in the snow” popped up on my radar. I thought it was evocative.
Are you religious or spiritual?
I think I’m a spiritual person. I think we all are, whether or not we acknowledge it. There’s just a part of us, whether it’s referred to as our soul or spirit or whatever, that needs nourishment on some level. St. Francis talked about nature as the big book. Scripture was the small book. Sky and the trees and everything else were the big book, this beautiful earth we live on. Music is very spiritual, I think. I probably have more questions than answers, but yeah, I would describe myself as spiritual, though not necessarily religious.
You know, if you take Christmas away from the lyrics, these read like short stories.
A few people have mentioned that. I love that that’s coming across. Somebody said the song “First Snowfall” came across as a short story. “My Father’s Body” has a narrative of someone visiting their father’s grave around Christmastime. If these new songs unfold like a little collection of short stories, I love the idea, but I can’t say it’s something I premeditated. Maybe that’s just how things revealed themselves.
How did you approach Merle Haggard’s “If We Make It Through December”?
We happened to hear that song one winter on a late-night drive, and neither of us had heard it for a while. It felt kind of fresh four or five years ago when the economy was crashing and burning and some friends had lost businesses and it was Christmastime. That song just raised its hand our way. I liked the idea of Karin singing it from a woman’s perspective. Singing it as a duet seemed like it fit this collection. It definitely could be described as a “reality Christmas” song. (laughs)
How did “New Year’s Song” come to you?
“New Year’s Song” felt like that scene toward the end of the movie It’s a Wonderful Life or some of those old films that pop up every December. I still find them evocative, and I think we really wanted that song to seem like it’d come up in one of those black-and-white films. It’s one of those songs where everybody would gather around. (laughs) We had strings on that to make it feel cinematic.
Describe Karin’s greatest strength as a songwriter.
Karin’s really great at capturing a moment. A lot of her songs begin with the melody. She’s got a pretty good instinct for a timeless melody, and it’s great to have a trusted editor nearby. Karin’s always the first reader of the stuff I write and the first listener when I play a tune in progress. She’s good at simplifying and cutting to the heart of the matter. If I get too far out there, she reels me back in. It’s been a fruitful collaboration, and I still think we’re still growing as writers.