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Songbird

Emmylou Harris celebrates her birthday today. I’m a latecomer to Emmylou’s artistry, having discovered 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 groundbreaking 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 departed the Flying Burrito Brothers to pursue other interests, so the story goes, Hillman found Emmylou performing in a Washington, D.C.-area folk club and talked her up to Parsons. On the night Parsons saw her perform, he was one of four in the audience. Parsons sought her out after her set. “I was knocked out by her singing,” Parsons later recalled. “I wanted to see just how good she was, how well she picked up country phrasing and feeling, so after her set…I introduced myself, and we sang one of the hardest country duets I know — ‘That’s All It Took.’ Emmy sang it like she was falling off a log.”

Parsons recruited her to sing harmonies on his post-Burrito albums and died of a drug overdose at age 27, following the second of his two solo albums. 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 as well as a few of her albums, starting with the song “Boulder to Birmingham” on her debut album. In her shows, whenever she introduces “Love Hurts” — a song on which she provided the beautiful harmony on the second Parsons solo album — she says somewhat cryptically: “This is what I like to think of as the beginning.”

Parsons dedicated himself to the union of country and rock that he dubbed Cosmic American Music. Emmylou has tapped a deep vein of that music. She 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 compelling songwriter herself. Her haunting “Prayer in Open D” conveys the desolation she explores 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 note of transcendence:

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.

From the beginning of her solo career after Parsons died, Emmylou proved herself to be a formidable bandleader. Among the memorable backing outfits she put together are the Hot Band, the Nash Ramblers, and Spyboy, each one of which generated an excellent live recording. Taken together, the live recordings offer a good overview of her long and productive career, still going strong. The unusual four-disc compilation Songbird, consisting of material selected by Emmylou herself, also provides a good introduction to her remarkable body of work.

I first saw Emmylou perform live in Minneapolis with Spyboy in 2000 and was (to borrow the formulation of Gram Parsons) knocked out, both by Emmylou and by the Spyboy trio. To say the least, Spyboy was an impressive instrumental outfit. The show was full of highlights, among them Emmylou’s a capella rendition of “Calling My Children Home” (video above) by the contemporary bluegrass/gospel artist Doyle Lawson. Spyboy’s Buddy Miller, Daryl Johnson and Brady Blade provide the three-part harmony underneath Emmylou’s soaring vocal.

Emmylou closed the show that night with a dynamic performance of Daniel Lanois’s mystical composition “The Maker.” Lanois says he began writing the song in Dublin, looking down into the Liffey, and finished it up in New Orleans near the mouth of the Mississippi. The rivers run through it.

Emmylou’s performance of the song illustrates several characteristics of her career. She refuses to limit herself to repeating old triumphs. She challenges herself with great material that has taken her beyond her roots. She continues to surround herself with outstanding musicians. And she remains an artist who digs deep to explore the feeling latent in the Cosmic American Music.

I can’t explain why Blade and Johnson are half-naked in the video while Emmylou and the incredible Buddy Miller are fully dressed. I don’t understand the photographic insertions over the audio in the second half of the video. I can say only: Listen up! (First posted 2009.)

UPDATE 2010: Our Internet friend Norman Geras of Normblog is an Emmylou fanatic who salutes her here with two of his favorite Emmylou videos and with a link to his compact Emmylou review.

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