What it looks like

Adding himself anew to the surprisingly populous ranks of local Grammy winners, Al Petteway picked up this year’s Best Pop Instrumental Album honors for his work on the Pink Guitar compilation (with Ed Gerhard, et. al.), a tribute to composer Henry Mancini.

But Petteway is only half the story — literally. His wife and collaborator (in music and nature photography), Amy White, has been his creative partner since they first recorded together in 1995, a year before marrying. (The enviro-minded pair’s new, mostly instrumental CD is appropriately titled Land of the Sky.)

On Dec. 18, the distinguished husband-and-wife acoustic duo will strum the senses with their particular blend of New Age-tinted folk, Celtic and traditional holiday sounds. Petteway and White call their yearly show — think of it as a soothing addendum to Warren Haynes’ hard-rock Christmas Jam the night before — A Swannanoa Solstice, its name reflecting the event’s partnership with Warren Wilson College’s world-renowned Swannanoa Gathering in July.

White’s higher-ranged mandolin meshes with Petteway’s finger-styled folk-classical guitar: “It’s like two voices speaking the same,” muses White.

And critics agree. The duo earned a combination of 50 Folk, Celtic and New Age WAMMIES from the Washington (D.C.) Area Music Association from 1995-2002, before moving to Fairview in ’03. They won the 2001 Indie Award for Acoustic Instrumental, from the Grammy-affiliated Association for Independent Music. The Northern Virginia natives were artists in residence (AIR) at the Kennedy Center Millennium Stage in D.C., and are AIR at Warren Wilson. Their music is often played on NPR and in independent films.

Besides nabbing the Grammy, Petteway this year landed in the ranks of the top 50 acoustic guitarists of all time, as voted by Acoustic Guitar readers. Another insider magazine, Guitar Player, picked him among its 30 “essential guitarists.” And he’s performed at the White House.

But don’t hold that last thing against him. Petteway, a virtuosic musician who alters tunings to achieve complex sonic layers, is no standard-bearer of blues. He also plays banjo, Irish bouzouki and fretless bass in every genre from Celtic to Appalachian to world music — varied musical cultures that are routinely expressed in the holiday concert.

White, primarily a visual artist and pianist before she met Al, will mainly play mandolin and guitar at the Solstice show. She also plays Celtic harp, piano, percussion, and even a boxed Harmonium with keyboard and bellows. Classically trained like her parents, White nevertheless creates arrangements outside the lines. (Incidentally, both Amy and Al are inclined to start tapping their guitars when traditional percussion just won’t do.)

In their other arena of excellence, Petteway and White featured a slide show of their nature photography on Earth Day in National Geographic‘s Grosvenor Auditorium. For the local Solstice show, they’ll offer three nature photos per tune, projected in the background.

Amy claims she takes up to 350 photos daily, often close-ups of insects. She’s photographed bobcats from the couple’s backyard, and approaching bears through a home window. Al worked for National Geographic from 1977-95, supervising picture editing for the Image Collection. He left to devote himself full time to music and to Amy. Traveling in Scotland, they shared a camera and sent photos back to the magazine.

“We’re definite partners,” confirms Petteway. Here’s proof: In terms of their photos’ style and quality, Al says, “you couldn’t tell who took what.”

[Freelancer Pete Zamplas is based in Hendersonville.]

A Swannanoa Solstice features Al Petteway & Amy White, Robin Bullock, the Warren Wilson College Chorale, mountain storyteller-comic Andy Irwin, and mountain dancer Stephanie Johnston. The show starts at 7 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 18, in Diana Wortham Theatre. Tickets are $10-$28. 257-4530.

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