Album of the Week: Emmylou Harris’s Roses in the Snow (1980)

Emmylou Harris cut her teeth recording with the late Gram Parsons in the early 70s before breaking out as a solo star. Her output was eclectic, with records ranging from country rock, to Beatles covers, to folk music and other styles. In 1979, she changed direction yet again, hitting the studio with multi-instrumentalist Ricky Scaggs for a bluegrass album.

“Only at one point was I told that what I was going to do was an absolute mistake, was going to end my career, was going to become a commercial disaster—that was when I wanted to do Roses in the Snow,” she told Lucinda Williams in 1997. “And I just said, ‘Well it’s my career.’ I knew I had to make that record… Everybody I knew wanted to do a Bluegrass record and everybody was talking about it, and I wanted to be the first.”

Roses in the Snow, then, wasn’t a mistake at all. It peaked at 26 on the Billboard charts and collects a rich assortment of recordings, beginning with the esoteric title track written by Ruth Franks and originally performed by Bill Grant and Delia Bell. Finding some lyrical parallels with Gram Parsons’ “We’ll Sweep Out the Ashes in the Morning” (on which Harris sang), it’s an upbeat start to a short and sweet album. Always with a trick up her sleeve, track 4 of the album is Emmylou’s cover of Paul Simon’s “The Boxer”, eschewing the traditional country/bluegrass songbook.

Acoustic guitar legend Tony Rice, who died in 2020, plays a key role on this album. Rice, whose proficiency in soloing found him collaborating with virtuosos like Jerry Garcia and Béla Fleck, appears on 6 of the album’s 10 tracks. His solo on the folk classic “Wayfaring Stranger” is beautiful and lithe. He also provides fast guitar accompaniment on “I’ll Go Stepping Too” and delicate picking on “You’re Learning”. Probably the biggest accomplishment on side B is “Miss the Mississippi (and You)”, which sparkles with a kind of classic Hollywood sweetness.

Among other guests, Johnny Cash can be heard singing on “[Cold] Jordan”. The album’s streaming version (a rerelease from 2002) features 2 bonus tracks, including a great take on Hank Williams’ “You’re Gonna Change”. Below, see Harris play the title track from “Roses in the Snow” in 1993.

Listen to Roses in the Snow here.

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