Whether it’s sweating in cotton fields or tanning on beaches, country music generally inclines toward sunny themes. But not always. Every now and then, a chilly wind blows into the hillbilly canon, and we all shiver accordingly. Here are 13 memorable examples of that anomaly.
“Mary of the Wild Moor” (the Blue Sky Boys, 1940; the Louvin Brothers, 1956; Sara Evans, 2001)
Versions of this sad story song date back to the early 1800s in England. It begins like this:
It was on one cold winter night
And the wind blew across the wild moor
When Mary came wandering home with her child
Till she came to her own father’s door
Mary knocks desperately at the door, but the father can’t hear her above the howling wind. The next morning, he finds her dead on the doorstep with the child still alive in her arms. He is so grief-stricken that he “pines away,” and “the child to its mother went soon.” Just as his family has done, the father’s house eventually crumbles, never again inhabited and haunted by the tragedy that occurred there.
The song has been recorded and performed by artists ranging from Johnny Cash to Bob Dylan. Evans’ version appeared on the soundtrack album for the movie Songcatcher.
“Footprints in the Snow” (Cliff Carlisle, 1939; Bill Monroe, 1946)
In this saga, the suitor goes to the home of his sweetheart only to learn that she’s gone for a walk in the moonlit snow. Undaunted, he tracks her down.
I traced her little footprints in the snow
I found her little footprints in the snow
I bless that happy day when Nellie lost her way
For I found her when the snow was on the ground
Romantic, eh? Well, their bliss is short-lived. We discover — without being told the particulars — that “now she’s up in heaven, she’s with the angel band.” That’s bluegrass music for you. No love goes unpunished.
The song is most closely identified with Monroe, who had a Top 5 country hit with it. The version sung by Carlisle (he was the older brother of the late Grand Ole Opry star Bill Carlisle) was used a few years ago in an L.L. Bean television commercial.
“When It’s Springtime in Alaska (It’s Forty Below)” (Johnny Horton, 1959)
Folk songs were big business in the late 1950s and early ‘60s — even those that emerged freshly baked from the ovens of professional songwriters. Horton and his manager, Tillman Franks, wrote this one, which went No. 1, as did the later Horton-Franks confection, “North to Alaska” (see below). In “When It’s Springtime in Alaska,” a prospector stomps into the Red Dog Saloon in Fairbanks and is immediately smitten by the club’s singer, “red-headed Lil.”
The song she was singin’ made a man’s blood run cold
When it’s springtime in Alaska, it’s forty below
He makes a play for her, and the singer’s jealous boyfriend, “Big Ed” (no relation), cuts him down with a knife, leaving him only enough time to exclaim:
When it’s springtime in Alaska, I’ll be six feet below
Horton also scored major hits with the faux-folkish “The Battle of New Orleans,” “Johnny Reb” and “Sink the Bismarck.”
“North to Alaska” (Johnny Horton, 1960)
This ditty was written and recorded as the theme song for the movie North to Alaska, co-starring John Wayne and Stewart Granger and set during the Nome gold rush (1899 to 1909). The song is so tailored to the film that it even mentions the main characters by name.
Sam crossed the majestic mountains
To the valleys far below
He talked to his team of huskies
As he mushed on through the snow
With the northern lights a-runnin’ wild
In the land of the midnight sun
Yes, Sam McCord was a mighty man
In the year of nineteen-one
In the end, ambitious Sam says he would gladly trade all the gold he’s found to be reunited with the woman he left behind.
“The Blizzard” (Jim Reeves, 1961)
Another sad one, I’m afraid. All the guy here wants to do is get home to a hot meal and a warm wife (although I may be confusing my adjectives). And home is so tantalizingly close.
There’s a blizzard coming on, how I’m wishing I was home
For my pony’s lame, and he can hardly stand
Listen to that norther sigh, if we don’t get home we’ll die
But it’s only seven miles to Mary Ann’s
They move on to the point that it’s only three miles, and then only a hundred yards. That’s where his pony gives out and where they’re found frozen together the next morning. As the song makes clear, the guy simply couldn’t leave “old Dan” to die alone, despite Mary Ann’s allure.
“A Tombstone Every Mile” (Dick Curless, 1965)
Truck drivers are intimately acquainted with the hazards of cold weather, and nowhere are those hazards more pervasive than in the north woods of Maine.
When you’re loaded with potatoes and you’re headed down
You’ve gotta drive the Woods to get to Boston town,
When it’s winter up in Maine better check it over twice,
That Haynesville road is just a ribbon of ice
The song’s refrain asserts:
If they buried all the truckers lost in them Woods
There’d be a tombstone every mile
And just so we can have French fries! This was a Top 5 for Curless.
“Snowbird” (Anne Murray, 1970)
The winter scene described in this song seems to symbolize the coldness the singer feels because she’s separated from her faithless lover. But why the snowbird makes her think of spring flowers, as it does in the song’s first verse, is not at all clear.
Spread your tiny wings and fly away
And take the snow back with you
Where it came from on that day
The one I love forever is untrue
And if I could you know that I would
Fly away with you
“Snowbird” was Murray’s first song to make the country charts. It peaked at No. 10.
“When the Snow Is on the Roses” (Sonny James, 1972)
People age and seasons turn, but true love is eternally fresh — or so this song maintains.
Now the golden sun can see us kiss,
Every summer day we’ll love like this,
When the snow is on the roses,
When the bluebird’s flown away.
In my arms we’ll both remember
All the love we share today
The song, originally a German one, was an adult contemporary hit in 1967 for pop singer Ed Ames of the Ames Brothers.
“If We Make It Through December” (Merle Haggard, 1973)
This is one of Haggard’s most poignant “common man” songs, in which a father tries — not altogether convincingly — to reassure his daughter that his job prospects and the weather will eventually get better.
If we make it through December
Everything’s gonna be all right I know
It’s the coldest time of winter
And I shiver when I see the falling snow
“Roses in the Snow” (Emmylou Harris, title cut of 1980 album)
In these lyrics, we see a love affair so strong that it transcends time. Even though one of the lovers dies, the memory of what love was like remains undimmed.
Our love was like a burning ember
It warmed us as a golden glow
We had sunshine in December
And threw our roses in the snow
“Wolves” (Garth Brooks, cut from 1990 album, No Fences)
January’s always bitter
But Lord this one beats all
The wind ain’t quit for weeks now
And the drifts are ten feet tall
I been all night drivin’ heifers
Closer in to lower ground
Then I spent the mornin’ thinkin’
‘Bout the ones the wolves pulled down
The wolves here are figurative as well as literal. A drought-plagued friend, the song goes on to say, has lost his farm to the bank and has had to move his family into town. And there are other perils to fear. At the end, the singer entreats God to shield him personally from the wolves of the world.
“Cold Shoulder” (Garth Brooks, cut from 1991 album, Ropin’ the Wind)
Another winter, another lonely trucker stranded:
The snow is piled high on the highway tonight
I’m a ship lost at sea on this ocean of white
Eighteen wheels anchored somewhere out of Dover
I wish I could hold her
Instead of huggin’ this old cold shoulder
“Cold Virginia Night” (Ronnie Bowman, title cut of 1994 album)
Loretta Lynn and Conway Twitty once sang, “There’s nothing cold as ashes/After the fire is gone.” But maybe getting dumped on a cold Virginia night comes close in temperature. Here the lovers discover each other in the spring and are swept away by passion in the summer. Then things begin to cool down, and, finally, she walks out, taking her “frostbitten heart” with her.
It was a full moon on a cold Virginia night
When Jenny left me I could not believe
Her frostbitten heart would tear my whole world apart
It was a cold Virginia night when Jenny left me
Well, I say to hell with Jenny. Let’s throw another log on the fire and have a pina colada.