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Emmylou Harris, "Light Of The Stable"Country music has a long, chequered history with the world of Christmas. Some of country music's biggest stars (Tex Ritter, Red Foley, Eddy Arnold) recorded Christmas songs in the 1940's, and Gene Autry waxed some of the earliest, best, and biggest Christmas hits of any genre. But, country music's treatment of the holiday has often since proved cursory in the extreme. Nashville's best and brightest would be parked in front of the Mitch Miller Orchestra to genuflect through a few hoary old holiday chestnuts. After posing for a cover photo with a stuffed horse, stage-prop sleigh, and fake snow, they'd punch the clock and pick up their check. In other cases (say, Loretta Lynn's 1966 album Country Christmas), the star would record a couple of topnotch original songs (like Lynn's "To Heck With Ole Santa Claus"), then fill out the album with dull, traditional covers. To make matters worse, it is inevitably the latter sort of song that is chosen to populate the dozens of "Country Christmas" compilations released every year - perpetuating the impression that Christmas in the country is tantamount to watching paint dry.

Emmylou Harris' Light Of The Stable is a bracing exception to this sad legacy. Exuding a warm Christmas glow, Light Of The Stable is a brilliant meeting of traditional mountain music and hippie country hoedown. Most great Christmas records evoke a curious combination of melancholy and joy, mirroring the odd commingling of loss and hope, dread and anticipation that the holiday often brings - particularly as we mature and accumulate psychic baggage. Harris' album captures this feeling perfectly. Younger readers should think of the music from O Brother Where Art Thou? - that's the sort of deeply traditional and heartfelt music we're talking about here, just translated into modern vernacular.

Emmylou Harris, "Light Of The Stable"Emmylou Harris released "Light Of The Stable" as a single in 1975. It's a simple song celebrating the birth of Christ, and producer Brian Ahern gives it the perfect arrangement - simple, spare, swelling to a rousing, if restrained, finale. "Light Of The Stable," in fact, marked the coalescing of Harris' acclaimed Hot Band, including Ricky Skaggs, Emory Gordy Jr., Hank DeVito, Rodney Crowell, James Burton, Glen D. Hardin, and the Whites (plus cameos by Neil Young, Linda Ronstadt, and Dolly Parton). When Harris and Ahern recorded the rest of Light Of The Stable in 1979, they brought the same passion and sense of history to the record that Harris did to her other brilliant, influential records of the day (such as Luxury Liner and Quarter Moon in a Ten Cent Town), as well as the same cast of up-and-coming pickers that helped make those records so great.

Harris' talented crew weaves a steady, acoustic-based sound through a varied line-up of songs - originals (Crowell's "Angel Eyes"), country classics (Tex Logan's "Christmas Time's A-Coming"), and carols both traditional ("Beautiful Star of Bethlehem") and modern ("Little Drummer Boy"). The diversity of the repertoire, the consistency of Ahern's production, and Harris' indelible voice combine to make Light Of The Stable a strikingly original, instantly memorable record. All told, it is perhaps the best country Christmas album ever made - or at least the best since Gene Autry bestowed "Here Comes Santa Claus" upon us in 1947. Certainly, no one's cut a better one since (though Dwight Yoakam came close).

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Emmylou Harris, "Light Of The Stable"In an ill-considered, cynical move, however, Warner Brothers amended the LP cover art when Light Of The Stable was reissued on CD in 1992. They replaced the beautiful, madonna-like shot of a young Emmylou from the original vinyl issue (left) with a more traditional, non-contemporaneous portrait (above) by a Christmas tree. Mercifully, there's no stuffed horse, and, thankfully, the music's pure Appalachian beauty remained unsullied.

Under the auspices of Rhino Records, things improved considerably in 2004, when Emmylou Harris revisited Light Of The Stable 25 years after its original release. Most notably, she recorded three new tracks, all prominently featuring Kate & Anna McGarrigle as well as many of the album's original players. Except for "Cherry Tree Carol" (a traditional song), however, the new songs don't add much to the album. But, this new edition is sweetly remastered and admirably repackaged with detailed liner notes and attractive new artwork (pictured at top) taken from the original picture sleeve for the "Light Of The Stable" single. Sadly, Rhino chose not to include the original cover - or even a picture of Emmylou - anywhere the package. But all told, the 25th anniversary edition of Light Of The Stable is a major improvement over Warner's original CD reissue and a worthy legacy for this all-time classic. [top of page]

Albums Albums

SongsSongs

  • Angel Eyes (1979)
  • Beautiful Star of Bethlehem (1979)
  • Cherry Tree Carol (2004)
  • Christmas Time's A-Coming (1979)
  • Light Of The Stable (1975)
  • Little Drummer Boy (1979)
  • O Little Town of Bethlehem (1979)

Further ListeningFurther Listening

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