November 30, 2009
A Guest Contribution
by Stephen Fales
“the night was freezing cold, from a heavy snow that day, we warmed our hearts on old time songs and danced the night away” — Gordy/Loveless
Back in 2001, Patty Loveless made a wondrous, rustic and rootsy album called Mountain Soul, a stunningly beautiful and highly acclaimed work of art. Mountain Soul was a natural evolution for the coal miner’s daughter Loveless, who has always been known for the passionate mountain sound that she brings to her award winning Country repertoire. Mountain Soul is potential realized, a bountiful harvest that Loveless continues to cultivate to this day, her current masterwork Mountain Soul II being her most recent offering.
Patty’s immediate and worthy follow up to the original Mountain Soul is entitled Bluegrass & White Snow, a Mountain Christmas With it’s stripped down yet sophisticated feel, this 2002 release has the quality and the character that entitles it to be called ” the Mountain Soul of Christmas records,”, It is that good.
Bluegrass & White Snow is an inspired, joyous and reverent labor-of-love from Patty Loveless and husband/producer (and genuine musical genius) Emory Gordy Jr. It seems that every project this talented couple undertakes is done with the golden touch of artistry and creative good taste, and their mountain Christmas record is no exception. What has made this classic a perennial favorite is the natural blending of two wonderful musical traditions, the organic feel of it’s acoustic production, and the warm and expressive voice of the finest pure-Country vocalist of our time.
Bluegrass & White Snow is an enchanting mix of Christmas Bluegrass and beloved traditional carols. This album has a warm and personal feel to it and rings with Appalachian authenticity. No surprise, since the Kentucky native invests so much of herself into the music with three autobiographical songs, and an open reverence for her family’s Christmas traditions and Mountain heritage.
The album opens with the Christmas lullabies “Away in the Manger”, and “Silent Night”. and Loveless gracefully covers such traditional carols such as “Joy to the World”, “The First Noel”, and “O Little Town of Bethlehem”. Her Appalachian alto is accompanied by ubiquitous mandolin, fiddle and guitar infusing a rustic flavor and giving these beloved carols an earthy yet elegant feel throughout.
The artistry of any Loveless/Gordy record often extends even to the album cover and Bluegrass & White Snow is one of the best examples. Here Patty “walks in beauty like the night” wearing the woolen coat-of-glory metaphorically alluded to in the original Mountain Soul. She looks every bit the Appalachian archangel in humble disguise, down from the mountain like a dream. She walks upon a cloudlike snow bank, an understated vision in royal blue and misty white.
Combine this with the clever title and the descriptive subtitle; it all conjures up scenes of mountain hospitality and beckons to the warmth of the music that is offered within. There, the listener will encounter Patty and Emory and their Holiday guests. A distinguished circle of musical friends that includes the finest talents in Country and Bluegrass music. Folks like Dolly Parton, Ricky Skaggs, Emmylou Harris, Trisha Yearwood, Vince Gill and Amy Grant. And the listener is embraced by this fine company in true Christmas spirit and is made to feel welcome and never left out in the cold.
All throughout, Patty’s vocals ring with pure silver clarity and warm golden tones. Her soulful voice sometimes seems to resonate in celestial dimensions and always conveys uncanny depths of emotion. “Joy to the World” is a beautiful example. It is a majestic Patty Loveless-Jon Randall duet and is the first of several carols to employ some creative musical accents; subtle wind chimes and wine glasses that seem to ring with Patty’s voice in resonant harmony like Heavenly tuning forks. They infuse the middle tracks of this extraordinary album with extra doses of Holiday enchantment.
“Carol of the Bells” softly descends upon the musical landscape like a surprise overnight snowfall, courtesy of the Nashville Mandolin Ensemble. It is an instrumental interlude saturated with mandolins that mimic harpsichords for a real old-fashioned feel. The subtle eerie overtones are from the wine glasses ringing with delicate magic, like crystal elvin bells. The whole piece gracefully turns into an extended instrumental introduction that Loveless uses as a springboard for her spellbinding rendition of “The First Noel”. With exquisite harmony provided by Trisha Yearwood and Claire Lynch, the three sound like a trio of down-to-earth angels singing their hearts out to the Heavens.
“Little Drummer Boy” is an inspired change of pace from the usual Christmas repertoire, and works brilliantly. Patty joins forces with a fellow Kentuckian and gifted young vocalist Rebecca Lynn Howard in a wonderful duet that blends two glorious voices in parallel melodic lines. The exquisitely interpreted lyrics conveys the song’s comforting sentiment that the Deity graciously accepts all heartfelt gifts, be they ever so humble:“I have no gift to bring par rum pum pum pum, that’s fit to give a king…shall I play for you pa rum pum pum pum, on my drum?” Patty graciously shares the spotlight, and allows Miss Howard to shine. Howard’s clarity and Loveless’ warmth make for the perfect vocal blend. And in a departure from strict Applachian convention, a lonely recorder hovers over the musical proceedings like a dove, It is a brilliant innovation, and a musical benediction.
“Christmas Time’s A Comin’” heralds not only the Holiday, but also the Bluegrass section of this wonderful album. It begins with Patty setting the rhythm on sleigh bells, and Emory joining in with compelling acoustic guitar hooks. Then all Bluegrass Heaven breaks loose as Patty and friends run with the melody and twin fiddles fly. They all conjure up images of home for the holidays, Country style.
“Santa Train” is the first of three songs written by the Loveless-Gordy team, and once again, they demonstrate their talent as first rate songwriters. Their originals fit seamlessly along with the more established and traditional songs on this album.
The actual Santa Train runs from Pikeville KY, ( Patty’s birthplace,) to Kingsport, TN and provides Christmas gifts to Appalachian children in need. And if it sounds like Patty is singing from experience, it is because she’s been there. She saw Santa wave to her from the back of the train when she was a mere 6 years old, and as an adult has joined Santa as a volunteer spreader of Christmas cheer three times now, in ’99, ’02 and ’07. Indeed, with this musical version of the Santa Train, Patty has given children yet another gift and awakened the inner child within us all. “Santa Train” chugs along with plenty of fiddle and perfectly evokes train rhythms, Bluegrass style. There’s even a real train whistle played by Patty herself, and she sings out the stops like a conductor, calling out storybook sounding names like Shelbiana, Dungannon, Copper Creek, and Cady Junction. But make no mistake, this song, like “Christmas Day at My House” is fine Bluegrass
music. The quality of the songs themselves and the virtuosity of the vocal and instrumental performances raise both these child-friendly songs far above novelty status.
The album closes with soaring festive harmonies, as Loveless is joined by Dolly Parton and Ricky Skaggs for the album’s closer. The song “Bluegrass, White Snow” like the album that bears it’s name, is absolutely saturated with Appalachian hospitality.
Patty Loveless and her musical companions make a compelling case that Christmas music is meant for Appalachian acoustics and soaring mountain harmonies. And Loveless herself continues to demonstrate that there is nothing more powerful than a gifted artist deeply connected to her roots singing from the depths of her being.
By any standard, Bluegrass& White Snow is a fantastic record. The few rough edges that are present only serve to enhance the authentic feel of the album even further. Christmas music is just great music to begin with, and this is a Christmas album with a mountain soul. The exceptional quality and Appalachian flavor of this record makes it entirely suitable for year round enjoyment, in and out “of season”.
Loveless and friends celebrate the essence of Christmas giving; the gift of God’s grace and the gift of music. And as always Patty Loveless and Emory Gordy Jr. continue to give their all. This is their Christmas gift to the music world. Make it part of your tradition and you are bound to experience this sonic wonder as a musical benediction. As is so often the case with Patty and Emory’s work, their music will leave you spiritually and emotionally enriched, nourished and blessed.
Bluegrass & White Snow is truly the “Mountain Soul” of Christmas albums, the finest of its kind.