Saturday, December 21, 2013
Light of the Stable - Emmylou Harris
Warner Bros. BSK 3484
Along with "A Very She & Him Christmas" I have been playing this album a lot this Christmas. I have had it since the 1980s but I have not played it much since then. I pulled it out because I have started listening to my Emmylou Harris albums again after seeing her perform a fabulous show with Rodney Crowell over the summer. It reminded me what a great singer she is and shame on me for not keeping up with her. My initial interest in Harris stemmed from her work supporting Gram Parsons and I found I liked her own albums too. I never really embraced this record though. My favorite Christmas music is secular and needless to say on this record the light in the stable is not Rudolph's nose. This record is all about Jesus, not Santa or chestnuts roasting on an open fire. The only secular song on this album is Tex Logan's "Christmas Time's A-Coming" which is my favorite song on the record. It is among the most country-style songs on the record with some fine pickin' on mandolin and banjo from Ricky Skaggs. Skaggs also enlivens a lovely performance of "O Little Town of Bethlehem" with his mandolin. I've never cared much for "Away In a Manger" but I have to admit that Harris' duet with Nancy Ahern on this song is gorgeous, the best version of this that I've ever heard with a terrific mandolin solo from Albert Lee. Rodney Crowell's "Angel Eyes" is not a Christmas song but it does fit in with the religious flavor of the rest of the album. Willie Nelson sings back up on the song, making it a bit less sappy than it might otherwise be. The side ends with an a cappella performance of "The First Noel" supported by Sharon Hicks and Cheryl Warren. My other favorite song on the record is A. L. Phipps' "Beautiful Star of Bethlehem" which is a traditional country style song with some tasty fiddling from Ricky Skaggs. "Little Drummer Boy" was my favorite Christmas song when I was a child, but now I just find it tedious. The song has the most robust instrumental arrangement of any of the songs on the record, which makes it a lot easier for me to listen to. "Golden Cradle" is a traditional Irish lullabye sung as a duet with Nancy Ahern backed only by Brian Ahern on guitar. This also isn't a Christmas song although with its lyrics describing an infant being watched over by angels in a cradle it is applicable to the baby Jesus and in that sense is consistent with the theme of the album. "Silent Night" is beautifully sung and tastefully played, one of the best versions I've ever heard. The album concludes with "Light of the Stable" by Steven and Elizabeth Rhymer. It was originally released as a single in 1975 and features stellar harmony vocals from Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt and Neil Young. It is not a particularly memorable song, but it sounds terrific and does give the album a strong finish. As Christmas albums go, this one has its limitations. My wife and son dislike it and I would not put it on for a Christmas party, but I like listening to it late at night while looking at the Christmas tree lights blinking. My Christian days are long behind me (thank God) but I still appreciate spiritual sincerity which this album has in spades. Plus it just sounds so lovely that I can't resist it, it is hard to believe these are the same tunes we used to butcher in church and elementary school. Recommended to people tired of the crass commercialism of Christmas.