In October 2018, Emmylou Harris was honored with a 10-month spotlight exhibit at the Country Music Hall of Fame. This May, she celebrates the 40th anniversary of her triumphant foray into bluegrass, her gold certified album “Roses in the Snow.”
From the hummingbird speed licks and fills of the opening title track, to the somber melodies in “Miss the Mississippi and You,” this album was a perfect eclectic bridge between country music’s bluegrass roots and the contemporary powerhouses of the early 1980s. This is best exemplified by the two songs that Harris released as singles from this album. Her take on the traditional standard “Wayfaring Stranger” and her adaptation of the 1970 Paul Simon hit “The Boxer” could not have been from more different eras of music, but Harris effortlessly worked them into the same sonic story of this album.
In a country music scene that was obsessed with the trend of Urban Cowboy, Emmylou and her contemporaries banded together to push against the grain and create a work that would become gold certified quicker than any of her previous albums, and stand the test of time with reverberations that would be heard in music for the next 40 years.
This album was packed with guest appearances from stars in the industry including a duet with Johnny Cash and featuring Willie Nelson on the gut-string guitar throughout the album. This star pull further cemented Harris’ role as a unifying force bringing the outlaws and outlaw adjacent artists into an era of country music that was so saturated with pop influences.
But the album’s influence on the future of folk and alt-country didn’t stop there. Along with The Whites, a prominent background feature on her previous album “Blue Kentucky Girl,” Emmylou brought on Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt to provide background vocals throughout “Roses in the Snow.” This allowed us a look into what was to come later in the decade as the three would join forces in “Trio.” Their ability to pull of rich full harmonies on this album gave reassurance to their desire to do an album together, a dream that they had begun mulling over in the previous decade.
Aside from her shepherding of her contemporaries, this album would have another profound impact on country music of the ‘80s. Fixed at the center of this album’s soundscapes next to Harris was Ricky Skaggs. Skaggs was instrumental in creating this album as a guitarist and vocalist, providing lead and backing male vocals on multiple tracks. Following “Roses in the Snow’s” release and wild success, Skaggs was given a national notoriety which allowed him to go out on his own when Emmylou took a small hiatus from music the following year. On the wave of “Roses in the Snow,” Skaggs would go on to become 15-time Grammy winner Ricky Skaggs whose musical prowess allowed him to create a tree of country music influence in his own right.
Going back to her roots with “Roses in the Snow,” Emmylou Harris rose to yet another level of stardom and spent the next decade making music that influenced some of the largest names in the next eras of country music from Trisha Yearwood, to Patty Loveless and the Dixie Chicks. But listening to this album it’s impossible to ignore the influence that this album, and Emmylou Harris had on one of the closest comps mainstream country music has seen to Emmylou since her era. This of course is current country music pioneer Kacey Musgraves. With music that is winning her Grammys while receiving less airplay than some of her more pop contemporaries, Musgraves frequently states how impactful Harris and her tree of influences were on her in her own musical journey. We are still hearing the echoes of music that Emmylou Harris made 40 years ago, and it appears that her influence will carry on for decades more.
Written by Joel Hernandez