Singer/songwriter Joni Bishop may be based in Nashville, but she does love Savannah, especially at Christmas.
“It’s sort of become our tradition just before Christmas to do a little concert together with the Sacred Heart Folk Choir,” Bishop says. “I’ll be bringing lots of CDs and art and instruments I make.
“I’ll be accompanied by John Powers on bass and Miguel de Jesus on percussion,” she says. “He’s a wonderful percussionist, and I’m excited to have a little bit of Latin influence in our ensemble.”
In addition to singing, Bishop plays guitar, dulcimer and her own handmade stringed instruments. Much of her music is original, but she will also sing Christmas carols.
Also participating will be the Sacred Heart Folk Choir, which will sing traditional carols, Christmas hymns and holiday pop tunes. Several members of the choir are also members of local musical groups, including the Savannah Ceili Band, Roll On Rodney and the Massey Boys, and a past group, Patchwork.
Jenny Brown is the director of the Sacred Heart Folk Choir.
“It’s a group that does the music ministry for the 6 p.m. mass for the Sacred Heart Church,” she says. “It’s mostly a group of people who love to sing praise to God.
“We do a lot of contemporary Christian music,” Brown says. “It’s a more upbeat music ministry than traditional choral music, although we do that, too.”
The folk choir has been a part of Sacred Heart Catholic Church for years.
“It kind of started as an opportunity for people who had been out of town and unable to get to mass in the morning to come to mass in the evening,” Brown says. “I’ve been in it at least 20 years and it’s been around long before then.
“We rehearse twice a month during the week and every Sunday before mass,” she says. “It enhances the scripture readings for that mass.”
The friendship with Bishop grew from her many First Friday for Folk Music appearances.
“Many of us enjoy that music and attend those concerts,” Brown says. “She came up with the idea that our choir could join her and do a set of our classic songs and Christmas hymns, and we’ve done it for six years now.
“We have people who come back year after year. We’ve watched some families’ kids grow up.
“Joni likes to sing ‘Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,’” Brown says. “She likes to bring the kids up to sing with her.”
The pastor of the church, Father John Lyons, is a musician who sings with the choir and sometimes performs with Bishop.
“Our folk choir does some carols first, then Joni does an hour,” he says. “She stays after to talk to people. She’s very talented – an excellent guitarist, an excellent vocalist.”
Sometimes, Lyons performs himself.
“I play guitar and sing, and depending on my schedule, sometimes get involved in the concert,” he says. “Last year, I had a conflict and couldn’t.
“In the past years, if I’m free, I usually sing and if I have time to rehearse, I may play the guitar. We usually have one or two guitars, possibly a flute and possibly a violin.
“I enjoy our folk choir and if I can, I sing with them,” Lyons says. “If they need an extra guitar, I’m also happy to provide.”
The concert has something for everyone, Lyons says.
“It’s just a good evening,” he says. “Having time to sing Christmas carols helps me get more focused on where I need to be focused.
“If we’re not focusing on the real reason for Christmas, it can be empty at Christmas because everything is material,” Lyons says. “Any time we can, we should focus on the rebirth of Christ and preparing for His rebirth.”
A New Folk winner in the Kerrville Folk Festival in Texas, Bishop has recorded for CBS Records and BWE Records. She has released five CDs on Polestar Records, her independent label.
In addition to music, Bishop is an artist. She is bringing her artwork, photography, CDs and handmade instruments to sell after the concert.
“I have two Christmas CDs,” Bishop says. “Among them, I probably have four or five songs I’ve written.”
Some of Bishop’s songs have been recorded by other artists, including Crystal Gayle.
“‘Endless Christmas’ is one that has been recorded by various folk groups,” Bishop says. “Michael Jackson’s nephews have formed a group called 3T that is very successful in Europe and a couple of years ago, they recorded my songs.
“‘On the Road to Bethlehem’ is kind of an interesting modern take on the Christmas story,” Bishop says. “And there are many traditional songs I like to arrange in my own folk style.”
Making instruments is as much fun for Bishop as playing them.
“I make three-string cigar box guitars made out of real cigar boxes,” she says. “All of them have electronic pick-up on them, so if anyone wants to play through an amplifier, it’s possible.
“They’re in different sizes. The mandolin size has a higher pitch/tone.
“These kinds of instruments were made in the Mississippi Delta,” she says. “When people couldn’t afford instruments, they would make their own.”
Bishop is seeking to advance her skill level.
“I recently took a course in making a real mountain dulcimer,” she says. “Next year, I’m planning to take a workshop in making a real guitar, a six-string classical guitar.
“I collect boxes or anything I think I can make sound with. That’s been a lot of fun.
“It’s interesting when kids see this kind of instrument being played,” Bishop says. “They realize they can make music out of everything.”
The handmade instruments will make an appearance during the concert.
“I’ll be playing one or two instruments I’ve made as a fun thing for the audience,” Bishop says. “But the real fun part is at the end of the concert with the folk choir and myself doing something together.
“We’ll do a sing-along with the audience. And it’s in a lovely church.
“Sacred Heart is such a special place, I don’t mind at all driving from Nashville to Savannah,” she says. “It’s almost eight or nine hours. After Savannah, I go to Mississippi and then Atlanta.”
But Savannah is her favorite stop.
“I really enjoy the Sacred Heart family,” Bishop says. “Father John has been so wonderful to open the doors every year.
“It’s a special place. If someone hasn’t been to this, come and support it.
“Get in the Christmas spirit with music and arts and camaraderie with the community,” she says. “It’s a wonderful thing.”
IF YOU GO
What: Sacred Heart Christmas Folk Concert
When: 7 p.m. Dec. 9
Where: Sacred Heart Catholic Church, 1707 Bull St.
Cost: Free; a freewill offering will be collected