The holiday season is once again upon us, and for Andrew Peterson, that means hitting the road, for the twelfth time, with his annual Christmas tour. Since writing the music for Behold the Lamb of God a dozen years ago, and releasing an album of the same title in 2004, the folksy singer/songwriter has performed the yuletide show hundreds of times throughout North America.

Peterson (right) and friends at the 2011 Ryman show

Peterson (right) and friends at the 2011 Ryman show

This year, Peterson and his team will do 16 shows in 18 days, with featured guests Jason Gray, Jill Phillips, Andy Gullahorn, Ben Shive, and Andrew Osenga. The tour will conclude, as always, with a gig at Nashville's Ryman Auditorium—a must-see event that in the past has featured such luminous guests as Alison Krauss, Phil Keaggy, Fernando Ortega, Buddy Miller, Nickel Creek, Mindy Smith, Pierce Pettis, and others.

Behold the Lamb of God (listen here), one of the best all-original Christmas albums in the last couple of decades, consists of a dozen songs that tell the story of the coming of Christ chronologically—beginning with Old Testament prophecies and the Passover, all the way through "Matthew's begats" and the title track, celebrating the birth of Jesus.

The award-winning musician (his Counting Stars was one of CT's top five albums of 2010) has also gained notice in recent years writing books for children. His Wingfeather Saga Series has won acclaim; the second in the four-book series, North! Or Be Eaten, won the 2010 Christy Award for Best Young Adult Fiction. The third book, The Monster in the Hollows, released in May, and the fourth and final book, The Warden and the Wolf King, will release in late 2012 or early 2013.

We recently chatted with Peterson—who lives in Nashville with wife Jamie and three children, ages 13, 12, and 9—about his Christmas album and tour, his children's books, the importance of the community, and something called "Hutchmoot." Read on.

What was the inspiration behind your Christmas album?

It came in Bible college in the mid-'90s when I took this Old Testament survey class. It was the first time I realized that the whole Bible was about Jesus; I never realized that the Old Testament was as much about him as the New. It just lit up my imagination, and that eventually turned into this idea: What if we could convey that through a cycle of songs about the coming of Jesus into the world?

You performed these songs live for four years before releasing the album. Why?

CD cover for Behold the Lamb of God

CD cover for Behold the Lamb of God

My record label [Essential] they wouldn't let me record it. It was really frustrating. They didn't see it as a traditional Christmas record; it was more of a concept album. At the time I wasn't selling a ton of records, so they were reluctant to take a chance. But when the label dropped me [in 2004], I was finally able to record it. By then, I had had four years of "preproduction," so by the time we went into the studio, we really knew exactly how we wanted this record to sound.

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Did you have any idea that the Christmas tour would become so popular?

No, but I hoped it would. I wanted to travel the country doing this. But we also dreamed about how cool it would be to do it at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville. We've done it there the last 5-6 years, and it's a dream come true. I wanted it to be a blessing to Nashville. When I'm with some of my best friends on that Ryman stage, and we're singing about this thing that unites us—the gospel—and I look out in the audience and see so many friends, it gives me an intense emotional and spiritual high. I feel this overwhelming affection for the city I live in. And we feel that way when we take the show on tour; we really want these songs to be a blessing to the communities we play in.

You've been making music now for almost two decades. What are you doing better now than ever?

Wow, you're making me think. Let me sort it out before I answer. Hold on.


[After a brief pause] I value the people in my life more than I did in the beginning. Ben Shive and Andy Gullahorn, the two guys I play with a lot, know a lot about me, probably more than anybody besides my wife. I've always had this fear that once people get to know me, they're going to leave. I don't know where that came from, but it means I really crave the friends I've had for a long time, because I actually believe that they know me and love me. To be known like that, and for them to abide in community with me, is one of the surest signs in my life that the grace of God is real.

Peterson says he sees God's grace through his friends

Peterson says he sees God's grace through his friends

I don't know what I'd do without these folks. And that goes for my wife and my kids too. I'm old enough now to realize that what a gift these things are.

So how's that affect you as a songwriter?

Hopefully my songwriting is better than it was when I first started. And if it is, again, it's because I'm in community with people who are better than I am. It doesn't hurt that these guys I'm working with are some of the best songwriters I know.

I think everybody needs somebody in your life who's going to be your cheerleader. For me, that's Jamie, my wife. Whatever I do, she likes—which is great, because I need approval. I'm kind of a baby that way. But you also need somebody to balance that out. You need people who will tell you that you can do better, and for me, that's Ben and Andy. When I play them a new song, if it's not up to snuff, they actually tell me.

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Would you call that relationship a collaboration, or do you prefer to write alone?

I write alone most of the time. Even if I'm co-writing, I'll take an idea and work on it in private. I can't imagine sitting in a room with somebody and throwing ideas out; the whole thought freezes me out completely. I need to tweak it and fashion it into something I actually approve of before I'm ready to let people see it.

Speaking of writing, you're also writing children's books now. Has your music career taken a backseat to that?

No. Actually my book writing career has actually helped me to love music more. It forces me to step back from it, so that when I come back to it I fall in love all over again. Both of these kinds of work scratch the same creative itch for me, and when I'm in book writing mode, I'm able to spend much more time with my family. It's more like a nine-to-five job where I'm always home for dinner. Sometimes I'm tempted to think, Man, I'm done with music. I like telling stories about dragons. And then one weekend comes and I go out for a concert, and I get the satisfaction of the exchange between the guy on the stage and the audience who's receiving the work, and there's something mystical about what happens there. And then I think, Man, forget book writing. I love music.

How did you get into writing books?

It's been in the back of my mind since high school. I've always wanted to write stories, but it wasn't until I read the Narnia books to my kids [5-6 years ago] that I thought I really have to stop talking about doing this, I really have to try it.

It all started one night in 2003 with a map. I got out my sketchbooks from high school and drew the world of Aerwiar, which is where this whole story takes place. Then I started writing. Between that day and the day that I went to Barnes & Noble and saw the book on the shelf [in 2008], it was about five years.

Book 3 of the Wingfeather Series

Book 3 of the Wingfeather Series

Did you sketch out not just a map, but all the characters and all four books?

No. Well, sort of. Fantasy novel research means a lot of back-story and world building. So you have to draw the map and decide what kind of religion and politics exist in this world, what kind of money they use, has gunpowder been discovered, that kind of stuff. In the process of writing the back story, the characters and the story I wanted to tell kind of rose to the surface. But only in the vaguest sense did I know the ending. You have to hold onto that stuff pretty loosely; you can have a pretty specific plan for how you want the book to end, but you need to allow the story room to change. Every time I thought I knew how a book was going to end, it's changed. So right now I've got certain themes in mind that I can't wait to get to, but how I'm going to get to them I have no idea.

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You must have really developed an appreciation for people like George Lucas and Tolkien and Lewis in developing their worlds and epic stories.

Yes. And J. K. Rowling, the intricacy of that world. It's impossible to know how hard that is to keep all those characters and storylines straight in your head until you sit down to try to do it. With my books, I get e-mails from people saying I can't wait to find out what happens with so-and-so, and I will have completely forgotten about that character. So I'll write a little note to myself, "Don't forget to tie up that loose end, dummy." It's not easy. For an author like Tolkien or Lewis to actually find a way to tie up all the loose ends in a satisfying way is a rare kind of genius.

Book 3 came out in May. When's Book 4 due?

I'm making a new record in January, and as soon as that record is finished I want to dive in and try to write the next book, which will be called The Warden and the Wolf King. I'd love to have it out by next Christmas, but that's a pipedream.

Changing gears here: What's The Rabbit Room?

It's a website I started a few years ago in celebration of storytelling and art and good music. It was inspired by Lewis and Tolkien and this theory that a strong community is going to nurture good and lasting works of art. Lewis and Tolkien are great models of the way friendship can help do that. The Rabbit Room was created in hopes that we could begin a community that would do the same thing.

From the beginning, we wanted to put flesh and blood on it. Wendell Berry was once asked about online community. He's kind of a curmudgeon when it comes to computers, so he said something like, "You're only in community with someone when you've pulled their ox out of a ditch or spanked their child." It's a hilarious quote, but his point is that community is flesh and blood, actual interaction on a daily basis with people whose eyes you can look into. In the Rabbit Room, the contributors are all in community with each other. We see each other at breakfast once a week and hang out.

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And that has led to an annual conference called Hutchmoot. What's that?

For the people who visit The Rabbit Room, we wanted to find a way for them to meet each other. Hutchmoot began in 2010 with Walt Wangerin Jr. as our keynote speaker. We had sessions on our favorite authors and storytellers. This year, it sold out in six hours, which tells me there's a hunger for community that is centered around the gospel and a love of beauty and truth and goodness.

It's not a conference just for artists. Have you ever heard people refer to themselves as creatives? It galls me a little bit, because it seems like they're saying there are "creatives" and there are all those other people. But I'm like, no, everybody is creative. One way the image of God fleshes itself out in every human being is that we love to make things. Whether you're an artist or not, you love to speak light into the world.

What are the ingredients of a great song?

That's one of the things about guys like Chesterton and Lewis. They were geniuses, yes, but they put their ideas in a language that everybody could understand. They took all these great ideas and put them on the bottom shelf for boneheads like me. So the kind of art that I love to experience is the same kind of art that I want to make—art that is beautiful and excellent and well-crafted, but isn't esoteric or elitist. I want people to be moved by music. I don't have the luxury of writing lyrics that people have to disseminate for hours in multiple listens. I want people to get it the first time they hear it. I want to write a song that would move them immediately, but at the same time would reward repeated listenings. I think that's the trick to make lasting art—to make it so that it's accessible to masses but at the same time you're not sacrificing any excellence or beauty.

Guys like Paul Simon and James Taylor write songs that you don't have to have a college degree to get. But, boy, the twentieth time you listen to it may be the time you get the third verse. So that's my hope for Hutchmoot. It's not a time for us to sit around and puff our pipes and call ourselves "creatives." It's a time for us to enjoy the fact that every human being is creative because we've been made in the image of a creative God.

Peterson's wonderful Christmas album now also has a companion book called Behold the Lamb of God: An Advent Narrative (Rabbit Room Press), by Russ Ramsey. Peterson's brother, Pete, describes the book as "a book that I wished I'd read when I was twenty when I desperately needed someone to show me the vast interconnectedness of the biblical narrative in way that was epic and dramatic instead of preachy and didactic. In short, Russ was doing in prose what Andrew had done in music with his Behold the Lamb of God album."