Inside the intersection of region and religion on Emmylou Harris’ 1979 Christmas album
Seven months after Blue Kentucky Girl (1979) introduced traditional instrumentation to her music and six months before Roses in the Snow (1980) kept the proto-Americana train rolling, Emmylou Harris lent her ethereal voice to the normally schlocky realm of Christmas albums.
Light of the Stable continued her run of bluegrass and country exploration while overcoming the yuletide limitations that shackled holiday offerings by Buck Owens, Loretta Lynn and other Hall of Famers.
Aside from down-home picker’s favorite “Christmas Time’s a-Comin’,” this collection focuses on the Christian meaning of the holidays. Intentional or not, these statements of faith point to the historic overlap between country, bluegrass and gospel. More importantly, she avoids the silliness that often comes with singing about Santa. You know, the type of creative decision that later brought us Alan Jackson: Chipmunk’s duet partner.
Harris must’ve spent some time in her prayer closet with a red-back hymnal while planning songs to cover—gorgeous renditions of “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” “Away in a Manger,” “The First Noel,” “Little Drummer Boy” and” Silent Night” make up half of the album. Folks unphased when Christmas music starts dominating the local grocery stores’ sound system tend to appreciate fresh renditions of lifelong favorites, so Harris made a good call by dotting her album with classics.
Fresher material injects the spiritual imagery of Christmas into Harris’ roots-heavy period of 1979-’80. The title track, a 1975 single with backup vocals by Linda Ronstadt, Dolly Parton and Neil Young, is a harmonious holdover from her country-rock years. “Golden Cradle” captures the magic of slower-paced material that turns Harris’ mighty voice into a soothing whisper. Both disparate songs puzzle-piece into her country Christmas cantata.
The lone outlier, the Crowell-penned “Angel Eyes (Angel Eyes),” isn’t about Christmas. Somehow, the tale of an enchanting songstress suits the album. Perhaps she, too, found no room at the inn. That or Harris and Crowell collaborations sound as vital to this day as some of the finest time-tested tunes about baby Jesus.
While Harris’ unmatched talents as a vocalist and guitarist deserve top-billing, members of her storied Hot Band—namely bassist Emory Gordy Jr., mandolin player Albert Lee, bluegrass jack-of-all-trades Ricky Skaggs and guitarists Rodney Crowell and James Burton—play a huge role in recreating Appalachian Christmas music that meets the lofty expectations set by Harris’ prior album.
In all, Light of the Stable represents something more than the gimmicky cash-grabs that result when other country stars added to the holiday songbook. By avoiding the usual pitfalls of Christmas albums, Harris, her Hot Band and ace producer Brian Ahern delved as deep as ever into how regional traditions and religion shaped the course of American popular music.