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Emmylou Harris

+ {Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell}

With her lapis lazuli soprano and impeccable taste in songwriters, EMMYLOU HARRIS has dominated the byways of country-rock and folk since the early-mid 70s, when she played diamond to GRAM PARSONS’ rust, and rendered BOB DYLAN’s `Desire’ one of the most sensuous rock albums of its era. So entwined with the history that – relatively rare for a woman in the music business – she has went from interpreter to visionary songsmith, HARRIS has also performed in countless concert films and made the occasional film cameo, almost always armed with a guitar and that peerless crystalline voice. Over a string of excellent albums and consummate choice of cover material, she built up a reputation as one of country’s leading ladies as well as winning over rock and pop fans.
Born April 2, 1947, Birmingham, Alabama, Emmylou later moved to Woodbridge, Virginia, playing saxophone in a high school band before winning a scholarship to the University of North Carolina. This was where she made her first forays into the world of folk music, playing songs by DYLAN and BAEZ as part of a duo with fellow student Mike Williams. From there it was but a short step to the coffeehouses of Greenwich Village in New York, where she also became a regular feature at Gerdes Folk City. Sadly, as the folk scene had gravitated into its psychedelic phase, the genre went through a transitional period, though HARRIS stuck to her roots.
Having found common ground with the likes of PAUL SIEBEL, JERRY JEFF WALKER and DAVID BROMBERG (while marrying another budding songwriter Tom Slocum), she released a cover of DYLAN’s `I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight’, the opening cut from her debut album, GLIDING BIRD (1970) {*4}, for the soon-to-be bankrupt Jubilee label. The record – featuring Slocum’s title track, HANK WILLIAMS’ `I Saw The Light’, FRED NEIL’s `Everybody’s Talkin’’ and BACHARACH & DAVID’s `I’ll Never Fall In Love Again’ – was hardly a resounding success and, after a spell in Nashville thereafter, she divorced and drifted back with baby Hallie to her parents’ new farm in Washington, D.C.
By a simple twist of fate, this apparent setback proved to be the beginning of her career proper after she was spotted in a local club by The FLYING BURRITO BROTHERS. The band informed ex-member and founding father of Cosmic American Music (country-rock, basically), GRAM PARSONS, who was after a partner for his forthcoming solo project. The two hit it off immediately; Gram schooling her in the ways of classic country. Over the course of two albums, `GP’ (1973) and the posthumous `Grievous Angel’ (1974), the pair recorded some of the most sublime duets in the history of recorded music (`We’ll Sweep Out The Ashes In The Morning’, `Love Hurts’, `Return Of The Grievous Angel’ et al); Emmylou’s mournful soprano combining with Gram’s cracked chords to create music of a fragile beauty. PARSONS was on a crash course in self-destruction, however, and after he O.D.’d in September ‘73, HARRIS’s career was once again in limbo.
Down but not out, she eventually formed a new backing outfit from the ashes of Gram’s Fallen Angels, retaining former ELVIS cohorts James Burton (guitar) and Glen D. Hardin (piano), plus Emory Gordy, Jr. (bass), Rodney Crowell (rhythm guitar, vocals), Hank DeVito (pedal steel) and John Ware (drums). As her backing group evolved into the Hot Band, with a plethora of session people and guests, and remaining at PARSON’s spiritual home, Reprise, HARRIS released PIECES OF THE SKY (1975} {*8}, a masterful, Brian Ahern-produced set that included one of her (and Bill Danoff’s) finest compositions, `Boulder To Birmingham’ (a lilting eulogy to GP), alongside the beautiful `Sleepless Nights’ and a rousing cover of The LOUVIN BROTHERS’ `If I Could Only Win Your Love’, that became an American country No.1 and modest pop hit. More of an interpreter at this point (slightly compared to her friend LINDA RONSTADT: a backing vocalist here), she re-tread songs by CROWELL (`Bluebird Wine’), Billy Sherrill (`Too Far Gone’), Danny Flowers (`Before Believing’), MERLE HAGGARD (`The Bottle Let Me Down’), DOLLY PARTON (`Coat Of Many Colors’), LENNON-McCARTNEY (`For No One’) and SHEL SILVERSTEIN (`Queen Of The Silver Dollar’).
HARRIS possessed one of the most haunting – and alongside STEVIE NICKS – one of the most distinctive, white female voices in the business. From Top 50 to Top 30 in a matter of only several months a la ELITE HOTEL (1976) {*8}, Emmylou brought to life songs by HANK WILLIAMS (`Jambalaya (On The Bayou)’), PARSONS (`Sin City’, `Ooh Las Vegas’ and `Wheels’), The BEATLES (`Here, There And Everywhere’), plus other material from CROWELL, DON GIBSON, BUCK OWENS et al.
Following her integral place on DYLAN’s Desire and her marriage to producer Ahern, HARRIS released her third Top 50 album, LUXURY LINER (1977) {*8}, arguably her strongest set of the decade, wherein she performed a spine-tingling run through of the great TOWNES VAN ZANDT’s `Pancho And Lefty’, whilst also covering The CARTER FAMILY’s `Hello Stranger’ in fine style as a duet with NICOLETTE LARSON. Expanding her songwriting CV by a factor of one track, `Tulsa Queen’ (scribed with CROWELL who contributed `You’re Supposed To Be Feeling Good’), there was of course the GP connections (`She’ and the title track), plus a LOUVIN BROTHERS piece (`When I Stop Dreaming’) back-to-back with CHUCK BERRY’s `(You Never Can Tell) C’Est La Vie’.
With 1978’s QUARTER MOON IN A TEN CENT TOWN {*7}, the singer moved towards straight country, scoring a Top 3 genre hit with her touching cover of PARTON’s `To Daddy’. Duets with WILLIE NELSON (on `One Paper Kid’) and Fayssoux Starling (on UTAH PHILLIPS’ `Green Rolling Hills’), combined well with covers from DELBERT McCLINTON (`Two More Bottles Of Wine’) and JESSE WINCHESTER (`Defying Gravity’ and `My Songbird’).
Her tonsils much in demand, she even appeared in The BAND’s `The Last Waltz’ rockumentary, performing ROBBIE ROBERTSON’s `Evangeline’, even if her totem performance was recorded in an M.G.M. studio after the November 1976 concert/event. Winning over fans of all persuasions, young and old, BLUE KENTUCKY GIRL (1979) {*6} kept up her Top 50 chart momentum. Her duets with TANYA TUCKER on WILLIE NELSON’s `Sister’s Coming Home’, DON EVERLY on The LOUVIN BROTHERS’ `Everytime You Leave’ and LINDA RONSTADT and DOLLY PARTON on Crowell’s `Even Cowgirls Get The Blues’, were as much of importance as covers of The DRIFTERS’ `Save The Last Dance For Me’ and FLATT & SCRUGGS’ `Rough And Rocky’ (not to mention others). Emmylou was now a Grammy winner.
Contrariwise to her festive/holiday LIGHT OF THE STABLE: THE CHRISTMAS ALBUM (1979) {*6}, 1980’s trad-angled ROSES IN THE SNOW {*7} was rootsier and stripped down to bare acoustic guitar; songs by A.P. CARTER, RALPH STANLEY, The LOUVIN BROTHERS and Ruth Franks, nestled next to her version of SIMON & GARFUNKEL’s `The Boxer’ and sourced pieces, `Wayfaring Stranger’, `Green Pastures’ et al.
As well as a minor-hit duet with ROY ORBISON (`That Lovin’ You Feelin’ Again’) for the soundtrack to MEAT LOAF caper, Roadie, the turn of the decade saw her pitching up with another roots icon in the WILLIE NELSON road movie, `Honeysuckle Rose’.
Also of Top 30 status, her solo EVANGELINE (1981) {*5} further saw HARRIS at her best covering classic material; Gram & Chris Ethridge’s `Hot Burrito #2’ and CREEDENCE CLEARWATER REVIVAL’s `Bad Moon Rising’ both given a thorough going over. Bookended by Crowell tracks `I Don’t Have To Crawl’ and `Ashes By Now’, LITTLE FEAT’s `Oh Atlanta’, JAMES TAYLOR’s `Millworker’ and PAUL SIEBEL’s `Spanish Johnny’ (featuring WAYLON JENNINGS) were pitched next to pre-“Trio” efforts (i.e. PARTON and RONSTADT on harmonies): `Mr. Sandman’ and the title track.
The formula running over to “outtakes” set, CIMARRON (1981) {*5}, HARRIS was still carrying the can for contemporary country. Inspired by POCO’s `Rose Of Cimarron’ (the opener), the Top 50 entry featured her first SPRINGSTEEN song `The Price You Pay’ (the `Born To Run’ here was the Paul Kennerley-penned piece), plus duets of VAN ZANDT’s `If I Needed You’ with DON WILLIAMS and the trad `Spanish Is A Loving Tongue’ alongside Fayssoux Starling.
1982’s live document, LAST DATE {*6} showcased her “Hot Band”, who then numbered Steve Fishell, Mike Bowden, Wayne Goodwin, Barry Tashian, Frank Reckard, Don Johnson and John Ware. If one was looking for a “greatest hits live”, then one would be out of luck, instead there were a few from her halcyon GP days, but more significantly, exclusive material by SPRINGSTEEN (`Racing In The Streets’), NEIL YOUNG (`Long May You Run’), CARL PERKINS (`Restless’), The EVERLY BROTHERS (`So Sad (To Watch Good Love Go Bad)’) and HANK SNOW (`I’m Movin’ On’).
Sacrificing some of her nu-Nashville nuances for straight-ahead rock’n’roll (she’d moved to Tennessee in ’82), she seemed to have lost her faithful following when WHITE SHOES (1983) {*5} didn’t perform chart-wise as anticipated. On one end covering DONNA SUMMER’s `On The Radio’ and JOHNNY ACE’s `Pledging My Love’, and on the other SANDY DENNY’s `Like An Old Fashioned Waltz’ and Jule Styne & Leo Robin’s `Diamond’s Are A Girl’s Best Friend’, it proved the genre could be manipulated – but at a cost!
Divorced from Ahern in ’84 (their daughter was born in ’79) and now wed to English-born producer/songwriter, Paul Kennerley, HARRIS recorded a semi-autobiographical concept album, THE BALLAD OF SALLY ROSE (1985) {*6}. A commercial disaster (peaking at #171), maybe the idea was for a road movie, but the story of a fledgling performer being taken under the auspices of an experienced singer – mirroring that of Emmylou and Gram – was a bit too close for comfort. Still, songs such as `Rhythm Guitar’, `White Line’, `Diamond In My Crown’, the title track, and several others, did mark the advent of Emmylou as a bona fide co-songwriter.
Suggesting how many sets she was willing to count (Emmylou always dismissed her debut of ‘69), THIRTEEN (1986) {*5} was a mixed bag of country covers and Kennerley/HARRIS songs; SPRINGSTEEN’s `My Father’s House’ and Sam Phillips’ `Mystery Train’, the exceptions to the rule. Material by DOC WATSON, MERLE HAGGARD and JACK CLEMENT (the latter’s `Just Someone I Used To Know’ a duet with John Anderson), couldn’t quite give Warner Brothers their stake money, and it was quickly pulled after it peaked at #157. Thankfully, up turned her PARTON and RONSTADT “Trio” collaboration early ’87, which went into the Top 10 having the scaled the country lists.
Turning 40 by the release of ANGEL BAND (1987) {*7}, the acoustic nature of the set was greeted with appraisal by fans of both country and gospel. Backed by discreet, live-in-the-studio musicians Vince Gill, Emory Gordy Jr., Carl Jackson, Mark O’Connor, Mike Auldridge and Jerry Douglas, traditional songs (such as `If I Be Lifted Up’, `We Shall Rise’, the title track, etc.) re-arranged by Emmylou and Emory, took precedence over Kennerley’s `When He Calls’, The STANLEY BROTHERS’ `Who Will Sing For Me?’, among others.
A timely TV tribute to WOODY GUTHRIE and LEADBELLY, Folkways: A Vision Shared (1988), unveiled her exclusive covers of `Hobo’s Lullaby’ and `Deportee (Plane Wreck At Los Gatos)’, but as time wore on, the worrying aspect was that BLUEBIRD (1989) {*6} and BRAND NEW DANCE (1990) {*5} did not chart sufficiently. The first of these featured a handful of tracks from the husband and wife team, plus covers by JOHN HIATT (`Icy Blue Heart’), TOM RUSH (`No Regrets’), JOHNNY CASH (`I Still Miss Someone’), BUTCH HANCOCK (`If You Were A Bluebird’) and KATE & ANNA McGARRIGLE (`Love Is’). The other Richard Bennett production (this time alongside associate Allen Reynolds), boasted songs known to fans of SPRINGSTEEN (`Tougher Than The Rest’), DAVID MALLETT (`Red Red Rose’), and her backing band: Kostas, Marshall Chapman, et al.
As the decade wore on, HARRIS and her Hot Band were met with an increasingly cold reception, commercially at least, and she eventually replaced said backing crew with The Nash Ramblers, a rootsier acoustic group who were credited on her live set, AT THE RYMAN (1992) {*7}. Sam Bush, Al Perkins, John Randall Stewart, Roy Hushey Jr. and Larry Atamanuik accompanied her at the one-time home of the Grand Ole Opry (the Ryman Auditorium) for resounding renditions of STEVE EARLE’s `Guitar Town’, Tex Owen’s `Cattle Call’, SPRINGSTEEN’s `Mansion On The Hill’, CREEDENCE CLEARWATER REVIVAL’s `Lodi’, BILL MONROE’s `Scotland’, STEPHEN FOSTER’s `Hard Times’ and several other exclusive versions of other people’s songs.
Duly divorced from Kennerley (she never re-married), COWGIRL’S PRAYER (1993) {*7} received mostly positive reviews from the press, although country music radio stations were in effect de-listing artists of a certain age (Emmylou was over 40!). Still, with a few songs of her own, propping up material by JESSE WINCHESTER (`Thanks To You’), TONY JOE WHITE (`High Powered Love’), LEONARD COHEN (`Ballad Of A Runaway Horse’) and LUCINDA WILLIAMS (`Crescent City’) etc., some exposure on CMT was encouraging.
It was to be Emmylou’s partnership with hip producer DANIEL LANOIS that reinvigorated and redefined her career, resulting in the acclaimed US Top 100/UK Top 50 WRECKING BALL (1995) {*8}, an album that also saw the likes of a similarly re-vamped STEVE EARLE guesting on his own piece `Goodbye’, LUCINDA WILLIAMS on her contribution `Sweet Old World’, NEIL YOUNG on the harmonious title track, and LANOIS himself on opener `Where Will I Be?’ (he also authored `Blackhawk’ and dueted with HARRIS on the HENDRIX cover `May This Be Love’). Closer to the spirited affectations of BUFFY SAINTE-MARIE, `Deeper Well’ was the star track, but then again, readings of DYLAN’s `Every Grain Of Sand’, ANNA McGARRIGLE’s `Goin’ Back To Harlan’ and GILLIAN WELCH’s `Orphan Girl’ resonated with country fans looking for an alternative to the safe and staid.
If anyone could keep the spirit of roots-country alive and relevant in an increasingly hi-tech musical world, then it was Emmylou, whose dedication to the genre through the ever-changing dictats of fashion was admirable. Taking her show on the road with Buddy Miller (guitar), Daryl Johnson (bass) and Brady Blade (drums/percussion), it was a good time to create an eclectic simpatico for her all-encompassing third live set, SPYBOY (1998) {*8}; from `Boulder To Birmingham’ to Julie Miller’s previous set effort, `All My Tears (Be Washed Away)’, HARRIS was in awe-inspiring form.
Three whole decades and nearly 30 albums under her belt (including recent collaborations with LINDA RONSTADT on `Western Wall: The Tucson Sessions’ and a `Trio II’ set that added Ms. PARTON), HARRIS finally tapped her latent songwriting talent on the acclaimed RED DIRT GIRL (2000) {*8}; not since “Sally Rose” in ’85 had she focused fully from her own backyard. She may still have dressed like a cowgirl but one’d be hard pushed to find anything to tempt the Nashville mainstream on this record. Instead, Emmylou – with the help of producer Malcolm Burn and an extensive cast of friends that included SPRINGSTEEN, GUY CLARK, KATE McGARRIGLE, ETHAN JOHNS, Buddy and Julie Miller, Jill Cunniff, PATTI SCIALFA and DAVE MATTHEWS – put in some of the best performances of her career against a backdrop that encompassed elements of starry-eyed pop, atmospheric rock, ethnic textures and driving percussion; press-play `The Pearl’, `Bang The Drum Slowly’ and the title track.
2003’s STUMBLE INTO GRACE {*8}, meanwhile, found the singer growing older – if not exactly stumbling – with as much elegance as the title suggested. Although she was arguably working towards a state of musical grace since the earliest days of her career, in recent years she’d intensified that quest and this album was another step in the right direction. Again laying its arrangements open to elements outwith her previous remit, the record – her second for Nonesuch – found HARRIS flirting with haunting fragments of folk, pop and world music to often mesmerising effect. A couple of tracks penned with KATE & ANNA McGARRIGLE (`I Will Dream’ and `Little Bird’) were nice touches, but so too were her joint efforts with LANOIS (`Lost Unto This World’) and ex-hubby Kennerley (on `Jupiter Rising’).
Following her 2006 collaboration (`All The Roadrunning’) with former DIRE STRAITS main man, MARK KNOPFLER, which rightly returned her to the Top 20, a near similar chart return awaited her Grammy-nominated solo set, ALL I INTENDED TO BE (2008) {*8}. Allocating herself five tracks (including two with the McGARRIGLE sisters: `How She Could Sing The Wildwood Flower’ – dedicated to Sara and A.P. Carter – and `Sailing Round The Room’), former husband Brian Ahern reconvened as producer on several enterprising covers highlighted by MERLE HAGGARD (`Kern River’), PATTY GRIFFIN (`Moon Song’), BILLY JOE SHAVER (`Old Five And Dimers Like Me’) and TRACY CHAPMAN (`All That You Have Is Your Soul’).
Switching producers to Jay Joyce (her multi-instrumentalist side-kick), HARD BARGAIN (2011) {*7} was virtually down to singer-songwriter Emmylou, plus a few outsider songs; the title track was authored by RON SEXSMITH, while Jay himself contributed concluding piece, `Cross Yourself’; sticksman/keyboard player Giles Reaves was the other bright light in her tight backing band. A transatlantic Top 30 entry, Emmylou reflected on her times with Gram on `The Road’, while dedicating `Darlin’ Kate’ to the recent passing of her pal KATE McGARRIGLE. Sure, the record was full of heartfelt melodrama, but there was no better artist to tackle tracks concerning the homeless: (`Home Sweet Home’), the tragic floods: (`New Orleans’) and the civil rights movement against a true-life mid-50s murder: (`My Name Is Emmett Till’).
Co-billed alongside former Hot Band veteran RODNEY CROWELL, the Brian Ahern-produced OLD YELLOW MOON (2013) {*7} exercised Emmylou’s right to find her back-porch country roots via Nashville. Revisiting older tunes through KRISTOFFERSON, SCIALFA, ROGER MILLER and Allen Reynolds, it was also through the CROWELL songs themselves (such as `Bluebird Wine’, `Here We Are’, `Bull Rider’ and `Open Season Of My Heart’), that posed the question of why she hadn’t previously presented this type of collaboration.
Thankfully not a one-off proposition, THE TRAVELING KIND (2015) {*6} saw the pair sign up for another round; HARRIS this time adding to CROWELL’s dual pensmith CV by way of the classy `The Weight Of The World’, the title track, etc. Buried between some rolling contemporary C&W/country-folk were covers of LUCINDA WILLIAMS’ `I Just Want To See You So Bad’ and Amy Allison’s `Her Hair Was Red’.
© MC Strong 1994-2006/GRD/BG // rev-up MCS Mar2016

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