Emmylou Harris’ first four studio albums all stuck to an eclectic formula that allowed her to establish her bona fides as the premier interpretive vocalist of her generation. What those early albums lacked, though, was a sense of focus. Harris’s eclecticism cut against her in a genre that so often values — or at least pays lip service to — formal conservatism. With 1978’s Blue Kentucky Girl, she seemed to answer that criticism by leaning hard into traditional country, with covers of songs by Willie Nelson, the Louvin Brothers, and Dallas Frazier. Narrowing her focus didn’t stifle Harris’s creativity; instead, it inspired her to push even farther into traditional forms, and to deepen her already-legendary interpretive skill. The follow-up, 1980’s Roses in the Snow, was a Bluegrass album, and not in the sense that it was a contemporary country star dabbling in acoustic music and trying to pass it off as a Bluegrass project. This is an album of traditional Bluegrass, performed with unimpeachable technical skill by a who’s who of musicians who either already were genre legends (Tony Rice, Jerry Douglass), or who would go on to attain that status (Ricky Skaggs, The Whites) within a few years of their contributions here. Harris’s husband at the time, Brian Ahearn, produced the set with the express intent of operating within the very narrow parameters that the Bluegrass genre allows. That singular vision, coupled with Harris’s richest song selections and most evocative singing to date, makes Roses in the Snow one of the finest albums in her extraordinary career.
Throughout, Harris and Ahearn embrace one of the central tensions in Bluegrass: That even the most spirited of uptempo romps is still informed by heartache and disappointment.
The title track opens the album, immediately demonstrating Harris’s gift for finding unfamiliar songs — in this case, “Roses in the Snow” was written by Ruth Franks and was recorded first by Delia Bell, a performer not widely known outside of the insular Bluegrass community — and putting them on equal footing with genre staples like “Wayfaring Stranger” and “Jordan.” She makes her affinity for Bluegrass clear with her selections of songs by Doctor Ralph Stanley, the Carter Family, and Flatt & Scruggs, though her vocal turns on these songs avoid being overly reverential of, or deferential to, the source material. That’s equally true on the album’s most surprising song choice, Paul Simon’s “The Boxer,” which benefits from a Celtic-inspired arrangement that highlights its lilting melody. Throughout, Harris and Ahearn embrace one of the central tensions in Bluegrass: That even the most spirited of uptempo romps is still informed by heartache and disappointment. The title track is a lament from a young widow who sets out to leave flowers on her husband’s grave; “Green Pastures” is the type of gospel song that preys on the fear of dying unsaved; and “Gold Watch and Chain” finds its narrator pawning her wedding band. The natural rasp of Harris’s voice is perfectly suited to these songs; few vocalists could match the complex blend of wistfulness and weariness that she brings to such a familiar line as, “Days are dark and dreary everywhere I go / Miss the Mississippi and you,” while her approach to “The Boxer” is one of empathy. In terms of fortunes both material and immortal, Roses in the Snow is an album that trades in losses, but one that searches for beauty wherever it can.
Part of Kicking the Canon – The Album Canon.