My Kind of Country

Country music from a fan's point of view since 2008

Tag Archives: A.P. Carter

Classic Album Review: Wanda Jackson ‘Salutes The Country Music Hall Of Fame’

Released in 1966 by Capitol Records (my copy is a British pressing on Capitol / EMI), Wanda’s album may be the first album to expressly salute the recently established Country Music Hall of Fame. At the time the album was recorded only six persons had been inducted into the County Music Hall of Fame:

1961 – Hank Williams, Jimmie Rodgers, Fred Rose
1962 – Roy Acuff
1964 – Tex Ritter
1965 – Ernest Tubb

Of the six above, Fred Rose was a publisher & songwriter but not a performer. The other five would today be described as very traditional performers, so this album gave Wanda, more commonly regarded as a rockabilly or rock ‘n roll performer (she is in both the Rockabilly and Rock & Roll Hall of Fame) a chance to display her credentials as a country performer. Reaching #12 on Billboard’s Country Albums chart, this album would prove to be Wanda’s second highest charting album.

While no singles were released from this album, I frequently heard tracks from the album played on the various county stations around the southeast Virginia and northeast North Carolina. This at a time that when Billboard did not chart album tracks.

Produced by Ken Nelson, no musician credits are given but I suspect that members of Buck Owen’s Buckaroos and Merle Haggard’s Strangers are in the mix somewhere.

The album opens up with the Hank Williams classic “Jambalaya” taken at mid-tempo. The song has a standard 1960s country arrangement with steel guitar and piano feature in the arrangement and the lyrics clearly enunciated.

Next up is one of my favorite Ernest Tubb songs “Try Me One More Time”. This was Ernest’s first chart entry when Billboard started its County Charts in 1944. The song was a crossover pop hit. This song is taken at a medium slow tempo that could be described as plodding, but which fits the song perfectly.

Yes I know I’ve been untrue
And I have hurt you through and through
Please have a mercy on this heart of mine
Take me back and try me one more time

If my darling you could see
Just what your leaving done to me
You’d know that love is still a tie that binds
And take me back and try me one more time

In my dreams I see your face
But it seems there’s someone in my place
Oh does she know you were once just mine
Take me back and try me one more time

“There’s A New Moon Over My Shoulder” was a huge hit for cowboy actor Tex Ritter in 1944. Again, this is a slow ballad.

Wanda enters another dimension with her cover of the 1929 Jimmie Rodgers tune “Blue Yodel #6” with its bluesy arrangement (nearly acoustic) and, of course, Jimmie Rodgers style blue yodel

He left me this morning, midnight was turning day
He left me this morning, midnight was turning day
I didn’t have no blues till my good man went away

Got the blues like midnight, moon shining bright as day
Got the blues like midnight, moon shining bright as day
I wish a tornado would come and blow my blues away

Now one of these mornings, I’m gonna leave this town
Yeah one of these mornings, I’m gonna leave this town
‘Cause you trifling men really keep a good gal down

When a woman’s down, you men don’t want her round
When a woman’s down, you men don’t want her round
But if she’s got money, she’s the sweetest gal in town

“Fireball Mail” was a beloved and oft-covered Roy Acuff song with writer credits to Floyd Jenkins, an alias of Fred Rose. This song is taken at a medium fast tempo with modern 1960s instrumentation (no dobro, fiddle or banjo).

Here she comes, look at her roll, there she goes eatin’ that coal
Watch her fly huggin’ the rails, let her by by by the fireball mail
Let her go look at her steam, hear her blow, whistle and scream
Like a hound waggin’ his tail Dallas bound bound bound, the fireball mail

Engineer makin’ up time, tracks are clear, look at her climb
See that freight clearin’ the rail, bet she’s late late late, the fireball mail
Watch her swerve, look at her sway, get that curve out of the way
Watch her fly, look at her sail, let her by by by the fireball mail
Let her by by by the fireball mail, let her by by by the fireball mail

Side one of the album closes out with another Ernest Tubb classic “Let’s Say Goodbye Like We Said Hello”, a 1948 hit for the redoubtable Tubb. The arrangement on this track plays direct tribute to Tubb retaining the three note guitar signature featured on nearly all of Ernest’s recordings. The song is taken at a medium slow tempo.

Side two opens up with “Jealous Heart” a 1944 ballad for Tex Ritter that reached #2 and was a top twenty pop hit. Wanda takes the song at a slightly faster tempo than did Tex (she also lacks Tex’s drawl).

Jealous heart, oh jealous heart, stop beating, can’t you see the damage you have done
You have driven him away forever jealous heart, now I’m the lonely one
I was part of everything he planned for and I know he loved me from the start
Now he hates the sight of all I stand for all because of you, oh jealous heart

Jealous heart, why did I let you rule me when I knew the end would bring me pain
Now he’s gone, he’s gone and found another, oh I’ll never see my love again
Through the years his memory will haunt me even though we’re many miles apart
It’s so hard to know he’ll never want me cause he heard your beating, jealous heart

Next up is “Great Speckled Bird”, a Roy Acuff classic from the 1930s. One of the all-time favorite religious songs of country audiences Wanda does a creditable job with the song but Roy Acuff she’s not.

“The Soldier’s Last Letter” was a huge Ernest Tubb hit from 1944 reaching #1 for four weeks. According to Billboard this was Ernest’s biggest chart hit (there were no country charts in 1941 when “I’m Walking The Floor Over You” was released, as one that was a big pop hit and sold (according to various sources) over a million copies. Merle Haggard would revive the song as a single taking it to #1 on Record World in 1971.

I think everyone has heard “The Wabash Cannonball” a song credited to A.P. Carter and popularized by Roy Acuff. Taken at a medium-fast tempo, and using a standard arrangement Wanda does a nice job with the song.

The final track is my favorite on the album, Jimmie Rodgers’ “Tuck Away My Lonesome Blues”, one of Jimmie’s lesser known songs. Wanda opens the song with a rolling yodel and gets to demonstrate her yodeling skills on this song.

I’m always blue, feeling so blue, I wish I had someone I knew
Just to help me tuck away my blues, lonesome blues
Won’t you be that someone to help me lose the blues
I really need someone to love me, someone to kiss
Someone to scold me, someone to miss
Won’t you be that someone to help me lose the blues
I really need someone to love me.

None of these songs are taken at a really fast tempo, so the entire album gives Wanda to demonstrate her skill as a balladeer. This is my favorite Wanda Jackson album and I’m grateful that I got to see her on several Capitol package programs where she focused on country songs and stayed away from the rockabilly stuff.

I am not sure why Wanda’s career as a country artist never really caught fire – she had a good clear voice with character and personality, she could yodel and she could tackle anything. I think she took off some years in mid-career to raise a family, and perhaps she never got the push from Capital that she deserved. Regardless, she was a fine singer – I’d give this album an “A”.

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Album Review: The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band – ‘Will the Circle Be Unbroken, Volume III’

will the circle 317 years passed between the original Will The Circle Be Unbroken and Volume II. 13 years after that, in 2002, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band decided it was time for a third instalment, which they released on Capitol. It did not make as much of a stir as either of the previous instalments, but is still a pretty solid collection of bluegrass and oldtime music with some guests old and new.

The opening ‘Take Me In Your Lifeboat’ is beaty bluegrass gospel performed with Del McCoury and his sons. The McCourys are back on the secular ‘Love Please Come Home’, which is well done but not memorable.

I preferred the contributions from bluegrass great Jimmy Martin (1927-2005), who had taken part in both previous versions, and who belies his age with confident upbeat performances here. He sings his own ‘Hold Whatcha Got’ (which Ricky Skaggs had made into a hit in the late 80s), and also the lively ‘Save It, Save It’.

In contrast, June Carter Cash (1929-2003) takes the lead vocal on the Carter Family’s ‘Diamonds In The Rough’, with Earl Scruggs on banjo. She does not sound at all well, and indeed died the following year. Although Johnny Cash (1932-2003) was also in poor health, he sounds much better than his wife on a self-penned tribute to the late Maybelle and Sara Carter, ‘Tears In The Holston River.

Willie Nelson, not involved in previous versions, gets two cuts here. Willie sounds good on ‘Goodnight Irene’, but the tracks is irredeemably ruined by the presence of duet partner Tom Petty. Petty is out of tune and the harmony is embarrassingly dissonant. A cheery Nelson version of ‘Roll In My Sweet Baby’s Arms’ is better although it does feel a bit perfunctory.

Dwight Yoakam (another newcomer to the series) is great on his two tracks. He shows his Kentucky roots on the mournful and authentic ‘Some Dark Holler’. He is outstanding on the Flying Burrito Brothers’ ‘Wheels’, which he makes sound like. Vince Gill’s ‘All Prayed Up’ is an excellent piece of up-tempo bluegrass gospel.

Emmylou Harris sings her ex-husband Paul Kennerley’s ‘I’ll Be Faithful To You’, a sweet declaration of eternal love, exquisitely. She also duets with Matraca Berg (Mrs Jeff Hanna) on Berg’s folk-styleode to the river running through Nashville, ‘Oh Cumberland’. Alison Krauss exercises her angelic tones on ‘Catfish John’.

Iris Dement sings beautifully on her own nostalgic ‘Mama’s Opry’. Ricky Skaggs and Rodney Dillard team up for the pacy folk of ‘There Is A Time’. Band members’sons Jaime Hanna and Jonathan McEuen (who were the duo Hanna-McEuen at the time) are a bit limp for me on ‘The Lowlands’, a folky Gary Scruggs song.

Sam Bush takes it high mountain lonesome on Carter Stanley’s ‘Lonesome River’. ‘Milk Cow Blues’ is taken back to its blues roots and features Josh Graves and Doc Watson. Watson also sings the traditional ‘I Am A Pilgrim’. More contemporary is ‘I Find Jesus’, penned by Jimmy Ibbotson. ‘Roll The Stone Away’ (written by Jeff Hanna with Marcus Hummon) uses religious imagery but it is a bit dull. The Nashville Bluegrass Band take on A. P. Carter’s ‘I Know What It Means To Be Lonesome which is OK.

Gravel-voiced bluesman Taj Mahal and legendary fiddler Vassar Clements guest on the good-humored ‘Fishin’ Blues, which is mildly amusing. Taj Mahal and Alison Krauss guest on this album’s take on the title song which falls rather flat with Alison sounding a bit squeaky and therest of them dull and lifeless.

This album lacks the groundbreaking nature of Volume I, and the cosy atmosphere of either previous set, making more of a standard collection of older material. There are definitely some tracks well worth hearing, and I’d still be interested if there was a Volume 4.

Grade: B+

Album Review: The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band – ‘Will The Circle Be Unbroken?’

will the circle be unbrokenEven if the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band had never made another album after this one, they would have still deserved a place in country music history. This groundbreaking album teamed up the young folk-rockers with country hearts with a selection of veterans including some from the early days of recorded country music, performing music mostly from the same era. It was a triple LP, but was remastered and released as a double CD in 2002, and is also available digitally. There is a friendly living room atmosphere, with snippets of the chat in the studio between tracks.

The various instrumental tracks and backings are brilliantly played by the Nitty Gritties and their guests, often anchored by Earl Scruggs and fiddler Vassar Clements.

The album opens with bluegrass singer Jimmy Martin (1927-2005) singing Hylo Brown’s ‘Grand Ole Opry Song’, which pays affectionate tributes to the stars of the Opry past and present. The song’s subject sets the mood for the whole project. This was one of the singles released to promote the album. It is very charming, but wasn’t very commercial even in the 1970s. Martin’s former boss Bill Monroe had declined to take part in the sessions, distrusting the young men from California, and reportedly regretted that decision once he heard the end result; but Martin’s piercing tenor is a strong presence on a number of tracks. ‘Sunny Side Of The Mountain’ and ‘My Walkin’ Shoes’ are a bit more standard pacy bluegrass – brilliantly performed, but they don’t really hit the heartstrings. The plaintive ‘Losin’ You (Might Be The Best thing Yet)’ is more affecting, and ‘You Don’t Know My Mind’ is also good.

Roy Acuff (1903-1992) was also dubious about the project, but having agreed to take part was quickly won over by the long haired youngsters’ genuine love of country music and their musicianly skills. Known as the King of Country Music, Acuff was the biggest star in country in the 1940s, and one of the influences on artists like George Jones. Even after his commercial star had faded, he remained a very visible presence in the genre, as a stalwart of the Opry and as co-owner of the music publishing company Acuff Rose. He sings some of his signature gospel-infused tunes ‘The Precious Jewel’, the gloomy ‘Wreck On The Highway’, plus the lonesome love song ‘Pins And Needles In My Heart’. He also takes the lead on Hank William’s joyful country gospel classic ‘I Saw The Light’, enthusiastically backed by the NGDB and Jimmy Martin on the chorus.

Mother Maybelle Carter (1909-1978) represents the earliest country recordings and the crystallization of country as a genre from Appalachian folk and the popular music of the day. She sings the lead on the optimistic ‘Keep On The Sunny Side’, a turn of the century religious tune which was one of the Carter Family’s first recordings in the 1920s. Her vocals are thickened with age (and she was never the lead voice in the original Carter Family, taking second place vocally to sister in law Sara), but backed by a chorus of other participants there is a warm familial atmosphere which is quite endearing, and the playing is impeccable. ‘I’m Thinking Tonight Of My Blue Eyes’, another Carter Family classic, and ‘Wildwood Flower’ are also charming.

Flatpicking guitarist Merle Travis sings ‘I Am A Pilgrim’, the coalmining ‘Dark As A Dungeon’ and ‘Nine Pound Hammer’; these are delightful and among my favorite tracks, particularly ‘Dark As A Dungeon’. Another guitar legend, Doc Watson, who surprisingly only met Travis for the first time at these sessions, takes on vocal duties for Jimmie Driftwood’s always enjoyable story song ‘Tennessee Stud’ as well as the traditional ‘Way Downtown’.

The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band harmonise nicely on a tasteful version of A P Carter’s delicately pretty ‘You Are My Flower’. Their vocal style betrays their folk-rock roots, but the instrumentation is perfectly authentic. They also picked out some Hank Williams classics to spotlight their own vocals. Jimmie Fadden leads on ‘Honky Tonking’, and Jeff Hanna gives ‘Honky Tonk Blues’ a Jimmie Rodgers style edge with his voice sounding as though at any moment he’s going to break into a fully fledged yodel. Jimmy Ibbotson takes on ‘Lost Highway’ (penned by Leon Payne but most associated with Hank)..Their vocals sound a little tentative compared with their more confident later work, but the songs are beautifully played. That is actually a reasonable assessment of the whole album – there is nothing to criticise musically, but the vocals, while honest and authentic, are not up to the standard of, say, today’s best bluegrass.

Pretty much the entire lineup participates in the title song, an inspired choice. The song’s own message is a spiritual one but in the context of this project it has a metaphorical second meaning. The messages of unity and tradition are underpinned by the cover art with its use of US and Confederate flags, and the legend “Music forms a new circle”.

This album is a towering achievement and one of the most significant in country music history. It united two generations, linking the up and coming country rockers with the men and women who had in effect created country music as a unique and definable genre. If you have any interest in music history, it’s a must-have.

Grade: A+

Album Review: Carlene Carter – ‘Carter Girl’

carlenecarterCarlene Carter’s own music is vastly different from that of her famous family, so when plans were announced for a Carter Family tribute album, I wasn’t expecting a collection of faithful-to-the-original remakes. On one hand it makes sense to update these old classics, many of which date back to the 1920s, for the benefit of modern audiences. And who better to do so than the heiress to the Carter Family musical legacy? On the other hand, changing them too much runs the risk of alienating fans. Although she does take some liberties with the arrangements, for the most part Carter and producer Don Was get things right, although there are a few production missteps along the way.

Carter Girl, which was released last week on Rounder Records boasts an impressive lineup of guest artists from Willie Nelson, Vince Gill, Kris Kristofferson and Elizabeth Cook to Sam Bush and the late Cowboy Jack Clement. The song selection is impeccable, consisting mostly of old chestnuts written by A.P. Carter, Helen Carter, June Carter Cash, and of course Mother Maybelle. Carlene herself gets songwriting credit on two numbers: “Me and the Wildwood Rose”, a remake of a recording she included on her 1993 album I Fell In Love and “Lonesome Valley 2003”, an old A.P. Carter and Al Anderson number which gets some updated lyrics.

The album’s main weakness is that some of the updated arrangements are too heavy-handed with the percussion, which doesn’t suit some of these old songs. This is immediately apparent with the opening track “Little Black Train”, which I instantly disliked. Upon hearing it, I was convinced that the entire album was going to be a disaster. The production on “Blackie’s Gunman” is also a bit cluttered. I did not initially like her take on her mother’s composition “Tall Lover Man” at all, finding the production a bit heavy-handed, but it’s been growing on me with repeated listenings.

Carlene and Don Was may have pushed the envelope a little too far on some of these numbers but they more than compensate for those excesses on the ones they get right, which is the rest of the album. She does a stunning version of “I’ll Be All Smiles Tonight”, which features harmony vocals by Elizabeth Cook. Willie Nelson is her duet partner on “Troublesome Waters”, and Vince Gill provides the harmony on “Lonesome Valley 2003”, which is the centerpiece of the album. The original tune dates back to the 1930s. Carlene wrote the updated and deeply personal lyrics, which deal with the 2003 death of her mother June Carter Cash as well as the death of Johnny Cash four months later.

Production missteps aside, Carter Girl is a very fine tribute and a great introduction to one of the most influential families that country music has ever known.

Grade: B+

Favorite Songs of the 1980s: Part 5

The 1980s got off to a poor start with the early 1980s producing some of the lamest country music ever recorded, as the Urban Cowboy movie wrecked havoc on the genre. Fortunately, there was still good country music being released. The first flowering of the late 1980s “New Traditionalist” movement arrived in 1981 with the first hits of Ricky Skaggs and George Strait, but they remained outliers until 1986 as far as good new artists were concerned. The latter part of the decade, however, produced some truly excellent country music with the 1986 arrival of Randy Travis and company.

Here are some more songs that I liked and remember. See if you recall any of these records.

the okanes“When You Leave That Way You Can Never Go Back” – Sam Neely
This 1983 song reached #77 for a talented performer who spent many years playing the clubs and honky-tonks of Corpus Christi. The song, the reflection of a condemned inmate’s life, looks back at all the bridges he burned beyond repair. The song also was recorded by Bill Anderson and Confederate Railroad.

Dream Lover” – Rick Nelson
Epic reissued Rick’s 1979 cover of a Bobby Darin classic after Rick’s death in a New Years Eve 1985 air crash. It only reached #88 but it gives me a chance to mention one of the fine rock ‘n roll / country singers one last time.

Save Me” – Louise Mandrell
Louise never quite emerged from her big sister’s shadow but this #6 single from 1983 shows that a lack of talent wasn’t the problem.

Wabash Cannonball” – Willie Nelson with Hank (Leon Russell) Wilson
This song is at least as famous as any other song I’ve mentioned in any of my articles. Although the song is often attributed to A.P. Carter, it really is much older than that. Willie and Hank took this to #91 in 1984.

American Trilogy”– Mickey Newberry
Mickey issued a new version of his classic 1971 pop hit in 1988. While it only reached #93, it was good to hear it again on the radio. Glory, Glory Hallelujah forever.

The Sweetest Thing (I’ve Ever Known)“– Judy Kay ‘Juice’ Newton
This #1 hit from 1982 was Juice’s biggest hit. As great as this recording is, the song sounds even better when she performs it acoustically.

Dance Little Jean” – The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band
Perhaps my favorite recording by NGDB, it only reached #9 in 1983 but I still hear the song performed today by various and sundry acts, not all of whom are country. The song was the group’s first top ten country hit there would be sixteen in all), although they had pop chart hits dating back to the 1960s.

“Let’s Go All The Way ” – Norma Jean and Claude Gray
A pair of veteran performers teamed up to release this 1982 hit which charted at #68. The song was Norma Jean’s first chart hit back in 1964. This was her last chart hit; in fact, she hadn’t charted since 1971 when this record was released on the Granny White label.

Elvira” – The Oak Ridge Boys
Although not their biggest chart hit, this cover of a Dallas Frazier-penned song from the 1960s , was easily their biggest selling song, reaching #1 in 1981 while hitting #5 on Billboard’s pop charts. Has anyone really forgotten the chorus?

So I’m singin’, Elvira, Elvira
My heart’s on fire, Elvira
Giddy up, oom poppa, omm poppa, mow mow
Giddy up, oom poppa, omm poppa, mow mow, heigh-ho Silver, away!

I didn’t think so …

Oh Darlin’” – The O’Kanes (Kieran Kane and Jamie O’Hara)
This coupling of a couple of singer-songwriters who had not had solo success, resulted in a half dozen top ten records that had a fairly acoustic sound and feel that sounded like nothing else currently being played on the radio. This song reached #10 in 1986. Their next single “Can’t Stop My Heart From Loving You” would reach #1.

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Classic Rewind – Mother Maybelle Carter – ‘Wildwood Flower’

A truly special performance from the pioneer who helped define our modern definition of Country Music. Included here is rare footage of her discussing the famed Bristol Sessions from 1927, known as “The Big Bang of Country Music.” Those sessions featured her, A.P., and Sara Carter (The Carter Family) along with Jimmie Rogers and others.

The song she sings here, “Wildwood Flower” was written circa 1860 with lyrics by  Maud Irving and music by Joseph Philbrick Webster. The original title of the song was “I’ll Twine ‘Mid the Ringlets.” It became an American standard when The Carter Family recorded it on the Victor label in 1928.

“Wildwood Flower” would see a second life when Hank Thompson and Merle Travis recorded it as an instrumental in 1955. Their version would peak at #5 on the charts that year.

Actress Reece Witherspoon also has a version of the song, performing it in the film Walk The Line. She won The Best Actress Oscar for portraying June Carter Cash (Mother Maybelle’s daughter) in the 2005 film.

Carter passed away in 1978 at the age of 68.

Album Review: The Wronglers with Jimmie Dale Gilmore – ‘Heirloom Music’

Veteran Texan singer-songwriter Jimmie Dale Gilmore has teamed up with the fabulously named Wronglers for a look back into the roots of country music. This is a convincing reconstruction of the acoustic string band music which was to grow into country music. The Wronglers’ Heidi Clare and Colleen Browne (who play fiddle and bass respectively) add harmony vocals throughout; the talented Heidi was also responsible for all the arrangements.

Jimmie Dale’s distinctive voice, with its echoes of Willie Nelson, works well on songs like the plaintive Johnny Bond classic ‘I Wonder Where You Are Tonight’. A pained version of the Bob Wills classic ‘Time Changes Everything’ is a real highlight, and my favorite track is a lovely, tender take on the Carter Family’s ‘I’m Thinking Tonight Of My Blue Eyes’. Country music pioneer Charlie Poole originally recorded ‘Leavin’ Home’, the story of Frankie and Johnny, back in 1926. It has a sprightly feel belying the dark lyrics of this murder ballad. Jimmie Davis’s ‘Columbus Stockade Blues’ is another authentic-sounding song from the roaring ’20s. The fanciful Depression-era ‘Big Rock Candy Mountain’ is rather charming; it is performed as a duet with the Wronglers’ frontman and banjo player, Warren Hellman, a retired financier who is the promoter of California’s Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival. I also enjoyed ‘Foggy Mountain Top’, a folk song which A.P. Carter found and copyrighted.

Bluegrass gets a nod with Flatt and Scruggs’ ‘If I Should Wander Back’, which is a bit dull, the oddly jubilant ‘Footprints In The Snow’, and an enjoyably sedate version of Bill Monroe’s ‘Uncle Pen’. The latter’s namechecking of older songs seems perfectly appropriate on this heritage-infused album. The traditional blues number ‘Deep Ellum Blues’ harks back to yet another source of American roots music. Less effective for me are the groups’ versions of Doc Watson’s ‘Way Downtown’ and the Delmore Brothers’ ‘Brown’s Ferry Blues’, while the traditional ‘In The Pines’ drags a bit.

The very elaborate packaging and artwork with the band dressed up in 19th century outfits adds to the mood of historical recreation. Perhaps this dressing up rather than letting the music speak for itself makes it more redolent of modern reenactors of historic battles than the real thing, but on the whole I am enjoying listening to this and having a bygone era evoked.

Grade: B

Buy it at amazon.

Album Review: Emmylou Harris – ‘All I Intended To Be’

Emmylou Harris’ third album for the Nonesuch label found her reunited with producer and former husband Brian Ahern. All I Intended To Be would feature Harris’ most country arrangements in over a decade, and would be hailed by most as the singer’s triumphant return to a traditional country sound, which it certainly is. More than a return to form, this is also an album that finds Harris bringing the broader songwriting selection that characterized her Americana work, and striking the perfect balance between the two in sound and song. Peaking at #4 on the Country Albums chart and #22 on the Billboard 200, Harris earned her highest showing on either since her hit-making days.

The slow-burning opener ‘Shores of White Sand’, is a tale of a woman not sure where to go in life and features steel guitar flourishes to help illustrate the lonely feel of it all.

The album’s centerpiece is Jude Johnstone’s exquisite ‘Hold On’,a tender tune addressed to a man who behaves as if life has lost all spark. As the singer attempts to assuage his uncertainty and remind him of better times,

I know you didn’t plan for this
But that’s the way it always starts
Just lookin’ for a little kick
Instead you bought a broken heart

the tempo progressively builds, aided mostly by dualing acoustic and electric guitars, and Harris’ delivery becomes more forceful.

Emmylou co-wrote ‘How She Could Sing The Wildwood Flower’ which tells the story of A.P. and Sara Carter, with Kate and Anna McGarrigle, after the three saw a documentary about the legendary country music family. The recently deceased Kate McGarrigle appears on this sweetly acoustic track singing harmonies, and plays a banjo solo as well.

Aside from those co-writes, Emmylou’s songwriting is represented here with ‘Take That Ride’, a melody-driven mid-tempo tale of a flame burned out, with the narrator staying more out of lack of interest in leaving than love. Harris also wrote the sparse ‘Not Enough’, which recounts the story of the death of a dear friend, and the emotional steps that surround it. As Harris’ plaintive vocal bends the hard-hitting lines – “Oh my dear friend, what could I do, I just came home to bury you” – it’s clear she’s mastered the art of melancholy story-telling.

Emmylou’s songs stand up with the other Americana mainstays like Patty Griffin and Tracy Chapman she’s included here. That’s best evidenced by the must-hear ‘Gold’, with Dolly Parton and Vince Gill contributing harmonies. In it, the singer admits defeat in a relationship where she simply couldn’t meet her lover’s ridiculous expectations. ‘Gold’ also features the album’s most traditional arrangement, complete with a rolling steel guitar solo.

A nod to two of country music’s greatest songwriters come from Emmylou’s take on Merle Haggard’s ‘Kern River’, where exquisite harmonies from Stuart Duncan, Mike Auldridge, and John Starling play perfectly with the mournful fiddle backdrop. She includes a mostly acoustic, and somewhat plodding, take on Billy Joe Shaver’s ‘Old Five and Dimers Like Me’, sang as a duet with John Starling.

While re-exploring the more acoustic sound of her best-known work, Harris delivered an album of solid songs, made all the better by the greatest instrument in the credits: her own seasoned voice.

Grade: A-

Buy it at amazon.

Album Review: Emmylou Harris – ‘Roses In The Snow’

Releasing a bluegrass album is a near-certain way to ensure diminished album sales and radio airplay; just ask Dierks Bentley. It was considered even riskier move in 1980, when Nashville was still deeply entrenched in the Urban Cowboy sound. So Warner Bros. executives were understandably unenthusiastic when Emmylou Harris and Brian Ahern submitted the bluegrass-oriented Roses In The Snow as Emmylou’s sixth album for the company. The label ultimately relented, primarily because of Emmylou’s stellar sales record: every album she’d released, with the exception of the Christmas album Light of the Stable, had been certified gold. The album was released in May 1980, and everyone braced themselves for a commercial disaster. But to everyone’s great surprise, Roses In The Snow was anything but a disaster. Although the two singles released to radio did not chart quite as high as some of her earlier records, the album peaked at #2 on the Billboard Top Country LPs chart, and like its five predecessors, was certified gold.

Emmylou’s previous album, 1979’s Blue Kentucky Girl, had marked a change in direction, concentrating primarily on traditional country, as opposed to the more eclectic approach of her earlier releases. The success of Blue Kentucky Girl, as well as the influence of Hot Band member Ricky Skaggs, encouraged Harris to delve even deeper into traditional music. Skaggs’ fingerprints are all over Roses In The Snow; he played several instruments on the album as well as contributing duet and background vocals. But what really makes Roses In The Snow sound unique is autoharpist Bryan Bowers, who plays throughout the album. While perhaps not strictly bluegrass, the autoharp recreated the sound of the Carter Family, contributing to the old-timey sound that Harris and Ahern were aiming for.

Like Emmylou’s previous albums, Roses In The Snow was recorded in Los Angeles in the Enactron Truck and made use of both The Hot Band and an impressive guest line-up. The Whites, who had been featured prominently on Blue Kentucky Girl once again contributed harmony vocals, as did Harris’ good friends Linda Ronstadt and Dolly Parton. Johnny Cash provided backing vocals on one track (“Jordan”), Jerry Douglas played dobro and Wilie Nelson played gut-string guitar.

The traditional number “Wayfaring Stranger” was released as the album’s first single. Perhaps the closest in style to Harris’ earlier work — reminiscent of past hits such as “If I Could Only Win Your Love” and “One Of These Days” — “Wayfaring Stranger” climbed to #7, bucking the then-current trend towards slickly-produced, more pop sounding music. “The Boxer”, a remake of the 1968 Paul Simon hit, fared less well, stalling at #13. It is the most unusual song on the album, not something I — or probably most people — would have thought of while working on a bluegrass project, but it works surprisingly well. Sung from the male point of view, it benefits greatly from the acoustic arrangement, Bryan Bowers’ autoharp, and superb harmonies from The Whites.

The best music is often made when commercial considerations are cast aside, allowing the artist to engage in a labor of love. This is decidedly the case with Roses In The Snow. It’s hard to pinpoint the album’s highlights because it is excellent from beginning to end, but if pressed, I would have to go with “Green Pastures”, a Harris-Skaggs duet with harmonies provided by Dolly Parton, “The Darkest Hour Is Just Before Dawn”, another Harris-Skaggs collaboration written by Ralph Stanley, and “Gold Watch and Chain”, an A.P Carter-penned song which features Skaggs and Linda Ronstadt. Emmylou’s cover of the Louvin Brothers’ “You’re Learning” is also quite good, and is one of the few instances in which she breaks with tradition and uses some electric instruments, namely the electric guitar, courtesy of Hot Band member Albert Lee.

Warner Bros. remastered and re-released Roses Of The Snow in 2002, along with two bonus tracks: a cover of Hank Williams’ “You’re Gonna Change” and the Celtic-flavored “Root Like A Rose”, written by Nancy Ahern (Bryan’s sister). Neither song is bluegrass, so they sound slightly out of place here, but both are excellent.

Roses In The Snow is available from Amazon and iTunes, and is highly recommended. Please note that the digital version of the album does not include the two bonus tracks.

Grade: A+