“The Sweetest Gift (A Mother’s Smile)” is a lovely, harmony-rich tune composed by songwriter James B. Coats. It has been a favorite of country, gospel and bluegrass artists since its recording. In 1946, husband-and-wife duo James and Martha Carson recorded it. Among other acts to record the song are the Seldom Scene and Blue Sky Boys. In the year 1973, Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard also covered it in their influential Hazel & Alice album.
In the 70s, Linda Ronstadt triumphed in the worlds of pop and country. Her 1974 album Heart Like a Wheel ruled both charts. In 1975, she released Prisoner in Disguise. Here she covered the songs: “Love Is a Rose” by Neil Young, “Tracks of My Tears” by Smokey Robinson, and “I Will Always Love You” by Dolly Parton. To include in her successes, she made a version “The Sweetest Gift” with Emmylou Harris. This track had sparse instrumentation, which made their vocal prowess shine throughout. Their duet version occupied the number 12th spot on the country chart.
In 1976, country superstar Dolly Parton was hosting her own show. She invited both Harris and Ronstadt as her guests. Apart from a solo performance from each, there was an accidental discovery. They televised a glimpse into one of music’s most-anticipated recordings, the 1987 Trio LP and its 1999 sequel Trio II. The way they sang “Applejack”, “Bury Me Beneath the Willow” and “Silver Threads and Golden Needles” sent shivers to the audience’s spine. But it was their touching performance on “The Sweetest Gift” that highlighted all the shows episodes.
The Trio’s Take on “The Sweetest Thing”
After more than a decade, 1987, it was finally time to release Trio. Harris sang the harmony on “The Sweetest Gift”. This was a mother-daughter duo version, the Judds, the final track on the original version of the Judds’ Heartland LP.
“The Sweetest Gift (A Mother’s Smile)” is about a visit from a mother to her son in prison. The powerful yet sweet heart-warming 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, a mother’s love is just as exquisite.