Today is the birthday of Emmylou Harris. To borrow a phrase from Neil Young’s ode to his old car, long may she run. I’m a latecomer to the artistry of Emmylou; I came to her indirectly through my love for the music of the 1960’s group the Byrds. The Byrds brought brilliant Beatles-inspired vocal harmonies and jangly 12-string electric guitar to the music of Bob Dylan and their own superb compositions.
In one version of the group, country-rock flameout Gram Parsons briefly took center stage and hijacked their 1968 album, “Sweetheart of the Rodeo.” Following that album Parsons and original Byrd Chris Hillman left the Byrds to found the Flying Burrito Brothers.
Around the time Hillman and Parsons both departed the Flying Burrito Brothers to pursue other interests, Hillman found Emmylou performing in a Washington, D.C. area folk club and brought Parsons to see her. Parsons promptly recruited her to sing harmonies on his post-Burrito solo albums and died of a drug overdose at age 27 following the second of his two solo ablums.
Emmylou must have fallen hard for him; she seems to pay tribute to him in one way or another in every one of her shows and on most of her albums, starting with the devastating “Boulder to Birmingham” on her debut album. Parsons dedicated himself to the union of country and rock that he dubbed Cosmic American Music. Emmylou seems to me to have tapped a deep vein of that music.
Emmylou is perhaps most accomplished as an interpreter of others’ songs. Take a listen, for example, to her version of “You Don’t Know Me” on her “Cowgirl’s Prayer” album. But she is also a formidable songwriter herself. Her haunting “Prayer in Open D” digs deep into the sense of desolation she conveys whenever she recalls Parsons in her music:
There’s a valley of sorrow in my soul
Where every night I hear the thunder roll
Like the sound of a distant gun
Over all the damage I have done
And the shadows filling up this land
Are the ones I built with my own hand
There is no comfort from the cold
Of this valley of sorrow in my soul.
The song, however, ends on a powerful note of transcendence and redemption:
There’s a highway risin’ from my dreams
Deep in the heart I know it gleams
For I have seen it stretching wide
Clear across to the other side
Beyond the river and the flood
And the valley where for so long I’ve stood
With the rock of ages in my bones
Someday I know it will lead me home.
Will somebody say “Amen”?