In March 1985, while promoting his country-flavored High Country Snows album, Dan Fogelberg remarked to the Nashville Tennessean’s Robert K. Oermann, “I like to listen to country, especially things like Emmylou’s records. I love this kind of music: It’s what I listen to when I’m driving my truck through the mountains.” That love is evident throughout the 11-track album, which features ballads, bluegrass and an appealing earnestness.
The idea for the project came about a few years earlier, when Fogelberg attended the Telluride Bluegrass Festival—as a fan, not a performer—and found himself recruited at the last minute by friends Chris Hillman and Al Perkins when the third of their trio, Herb Pedersen, was a no-show due to a missed or cancelled flight. They rehearsed in the afternoon and performed that night…
For the LP, Nashville’s finest players back Fogelberg, including Jim Buchanan (fiddle), Jerry Douglas (dobro), Emory Gordy Jr. (bass), David Grisman (mandolin) and Herb Pedersen (banjo and harmony vocals), while session drummer extraordinaire Russ Kunkel keeps a steady beat. In addition, Hillman plays mandolin and sings harmony on the title cut, Doc Watson sits in on “Wolf Creek” and Ricky Skaggs and Vince Gill provide harmonies on several songs.
The LP opens with a snippet of “Down the Road,” the classic Flatt & Scruggs tune, with Fogelberg joined by Herb Pedersen on vocals, before kicking into high gear with “Mountain Pass,” which features high harmonies from Skaggs: “Well, I’m runnin’ down this mountain pass at midnight/Those truckers they all flash their lights at me/This highway ain’t the very best companion/‘Cause I know there’s somewhere else I’d rather be…” Now, purists may scoff at the inclusion of drums on this and the other bluegrass-flavored tracks, but they’re the only ones. It’s a glorious blast of that high lonesome sound.
The country-folk story-song “Sutter’s Mill” follows. Unlike the story-songs found on Windows and Walls, it strikes the right balance while spinning a tale of unforeseen consequences. The mid-tempo “Wolf Creek,” which follows, features some deft guitar picking from Fogelberg and Doc Watson, while also giving other members of the ensemble a chance to shine.
“High Country Snows” echoes Gram Parson’s “Hickory Wind” to great effect while painting a serene scene: “There’s a place in the Rockies, a place that I know/Where the world cannot find me and the time goes so slow.” Unlike “Hickory Wind,” however, it’s not about escaping into the memories of an idyllic childhood, but to a real and present love: “In the space of a lifetime a man misses much/’Til he finds him a woman and treasures her touch/When the lakes all lie frozen and the wild wind blows/I’ll return to my darlin’ and the high country snows.”
“The Outlaw,” one of two songs written by Jay Bolotin, is an uptempo story-song with a twist; it would’ve been a hit if Charlie Daniels had covered it. “Shallow Rivers,” another uptempo tune with solo turns from Buchanan and Pedersen, finds Fogelberg turning shallow waters into a metaphor about a failing relationship—and his dream for something more. “Go Down Easy,” about a woman who moves to the countryside after losing her lover, is the second song written by Bolotin; if it sounds like a refugee from 1970s-era adult contemporary, there’s a reason: Both it and “The Outlaw” were written in the early ’70s.
“Wandering Shepherd,” which features Fogelberg on acoustic guitar, is pure bluegrass gospel. The harmonies of Vince Gill and Herb Pedersen make a great song even better. (This is one of the tracks I sometimes played on my folk music radio show during the mid-1980s.)
“Think of What You’ve Done” is yet another bluegrass-flavored track with exquisite harmonies from Skaggs; it finds Fogelberg coming to grips with a busted relationship—and sets the stage for the closing “The Higher You Climb,” in which he relates lessons he’s learned thus far in his life: “The higher you climb, the more that you see/The more that you see, the less that you know/The less that you know, the more that you yearn/The more that you yearn, the higher you climb.” Some folks may hear echoes of his ‘70s sides within it and, in fact, I agree; like “Go Down Easy,” it would’ve fit on any of his classic albums.
The critical reception to High Country Snows was about par for the course for Fogelberg, with the high-octane romps and backing personnel praised, while the adult-contemporary fare was generally damned. I discovered it via a review in Rolling Stone, which—and I’m working from memory here—gave it three or three-and-a-half stars and, as I said in my introduction to the Fogelberg Files, thoroughly enjoyed it from the get-go. It’s one part bluegrass, one part country and one part singer-songwriter—and all parts good. Within the construct of my life and musical likes, it’s an essential album.
The track list:
Finally, here’s a Tribune Media Services article about High Country Snows that appeared in the Indianapolis News on June 12, 1985: