Joni Mitchell’s 1971 LP Blue is universally acknowledged as one of the most acclaimed albums of all time and a landmark for female artists in the Seventies. And although it’s not a Christmas record, the starkly arranged album nevertheless produced the beautiful ballad “River.” One of the greatest (albeit most downbeat) Christmas songs ever, “River” has gone on to become one of the Canadian singer-songwriter’s most often-covered tunes.
For their ongoing series “Holiday Undercover,” the pop-culture website A.V. Club invited several artists to perform simply arranged cover versions of their favorite holiday-themed songs. Singer-songwriter Ashley Monroe — no stranger to sad tunes — unwraps a delicate, profoundly heartbreaking rendition of “River” on which she’s backed by acoustic guitar and a weeping fiddle. The decorated Christmas tree and the wall of wreaths behind her are the cheeriest things on the set as she sings the classic tune with the bittersweet, soulful vocal style that has drawn comparisons to Dolly Parton and Lee Ann Womack and also made Monroe one of the most critically lauded country singers of the past several years, both as a solo act and collaborator.
In a video accompanying her performance, Monroe explains her song choice, and makes it clear she knows it’s far from the most uplifting of holiday-flavored hits. “I picked ‘River’ because it’s the most sad, beautiful Christmas song I’ve ever heard in my life,” she says. “Every time I sing it I kind of cry a little on the inside. I’ve always loved sad Christmas songs. I don’t know why but I do.”
Monroe, who earlier this year told Rolling Stone Country, “It’s hard for me to write a happy song,” should nevertheless be able to find a bit of holiday cheer this year: her LP The Blade received a Grammy nomination for Best Country Album.