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Flashback: See Dolly Parton’s Heavenly Collaboration on ‘Sweetest Gift’

Country chanteuse joins Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris to harmonize on a 1976 TV appearance

Through the years, artists of every musical genre have paid tribute to moms in song — and with Mother’s Day this weekend, here’s your reminder to buy a card — including, most recently Garth Brooks, who cut the Wynn Varble-Don Sampson tune “Mom” (previously recorded by Bonnie Tyler) for his comeback album, Man Against Machine. It’s a weeper of a tune, and one that Brooks performed this morning on Good Morning America as part of a Mother’s Day surprise for a viewer.

But even more affecting is “The Sweetest Gift (A Mother’s Smile),” a gorgeous, harmony-rich tune penned by songwriter (and future Gospel Music Hall of Fame member) James B. Coats, about a mother’s visit to her imprisoned son. The powerful yet sweetly sentimental lyrics seem to suggest that the visit was literally a heavenly one: “She did not bring to him parole or pardon/She brought no silver, no pomp nor style/It was a halo sent down from heaven, the sweetest gift, a mother’s smile.” No matter how one interprets those words, it has been a favorite of country, gospel and bluegrass artists since the song’s recording by husband-and-wife duo James and Martha Carson in 1946. Among other acts to record it are the Seldom Scene, Blue Sky Boys and, in 1973, Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard on their influential Hazel & Alice album.

In the mid-Seventies, singer Linda Ronstadt had been enjoying equal success in the worlds of pop and country. Her 1974 album Heart Like a Wheel topped both charts, and in 1975, she released Prisoner in Disguise, covering the songs of Neil Young (“Love Is a Rose”), Smokey Robinson (“Tracks of My Tears”) and Dolly Parton (“I Will Always Love You”). She also enlisted harmony vocal assistance from Emmylou Harris on a version of “The Sweetest Gift” that employs sparse instrumentation, allowing the singers’ lush harmonies to shine throughout. Their duet version peaked at Number 12 on the country chart.

In 1976, country (and soon-to-be pop) superstar Dolly Parton was hosting her own syndicated variety series and invited both Harris and Ronstadt to appear as guests. In addition to solo performances from each, the show featured the world’s first televised glimpse into what would become one of music’s most-anticipated recordings, the 1987 Trio LP (and its 1999 sequel, Trio II). Their three-part harmonies were spine-tingling, especially on Parton’s “Applejack,” as well as the more traditional “Bury Me Beneath the Willow” and a snippet of Ronstadt’s then-hit “Silver Threads and Golden Needles.”

But it was their heartbreaking take on “The Sweetest Gift” that proved the episode’s (and the entire series’) standout performance, with Harris on acoustic guitar and a piano player the only musical accompaniment.

In 1987, at the same time Trio was finally being released, Harris once again sang harmony on “The Sweetest Gift,” this time for a version by the most successful mother-daughter duo in country music, the Judds. The final track on the original version of the Judds’ Heartland LP, its inclusion was most certainly influenced by the Hazel & Alice version, which both Wynonna and Naomi Judd have acknowledged they listened to repeatedly while honing their own harmonies.

Trio was a million-seller and earned two Grammy awards in country categories. The LP also earned an Album of the Year Grammy nod, but lost to U2’s The Joshua Tree. A third installment, made up of unreleased material, is reportedly in the works. 

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