Emmylou Harris celebrated her birthday last week. In the world of the Cosmic American Music, attention must be paid. Skipping over great swaths of her career, I thought I might take the occasion as an excuse to revisit her story along with a few of the videos that reflect her artistry. She is, to say the least, still going strong. In the time of the great hunkering down, this may be a pause that refreshes. That is certainly my intention.
I’m a latecomer to Emmylou’s artistry. I discovered her indirectly through my love for the music of the the Byrds. The Byrds famously brought brilliant Beatles-inspired vocal harmonies and jangly 12-string electric guitar to the music of Bob Dylan and their own superb compositions. In a transitional version of the group, country-rock proponent Gram Parsons jumped on board their groundbreaking Sweetheart of the Rodeo album in 1968. 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 he saw her perform, Parsons 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 — [George Jones’s] ‘That’s All It Took.’ Emmy sang it like she was falling off a log.” With the depth of the library available now on YouTube, we can get an idea of what it must have sounded like (video below).
Parsons recruited Emmylou 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 each of her shows I’ve seen as well as a on few of her albums, starting with the song “Boulder to Birmingham” on her debut album (video below).
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 without further explanation: “This is what I like to think of as the beginning.” The video of her singing the harmony part with Parsons on lead vocal is available on YouTube. In the version below, Buddy Miller takes the harmony part to Emmylou’s lead.
Parsons dedicated himself to the union of country and rock that he called 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 Eddy Arnold’s “You Don’t Know Me” on her Cowgirl’s Prayer album.
Emmylou has also become a compelling songwriter herself. She is certainly a highly literate lyricist. Her haunting “Prayer in Open D” conveys the desolation she explores whenever she recalls Parsons in her music. The song, however, ends on a note of transcendence. It also appears on Cowgirl’s Prayer. In concert she sends the band offstage and performs the song accompanied only by herself on guitar.
From the beginning of her solo career after Parsons died, Emmylou proved herself to be a formidable bandleader and interpreter. 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. The unusual four-disc compilation Songbird, consisting of material selected by Emmylou herself, also provides a good introduction to her remarkable body of work.
Emmylou recorded “Save the Last Dance For Me” with a hot version of the Hot Band in 1979. Rodney Crowell is on acoustic guitar, James Burton and Albert Lee on electric guitar, Ricky Skaggs on fiddle, Albert Lee on mandolin, and Glen Hardin on piano, among others. Written by Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman, the song has become a staple through the hit version by the Drifters. Everyone knows it, but Emmylou made it new and made it real by bringing out the underlying pathos. Pomus had contracted polio as a boy. As Alan Light explained in the New York Times book review of a Doc Pomus bio, “Pomus actually wrote the lyrics on the back of an invitation to his own wedding, remembering how it felt to watch his bride dance with his brother, knowing that he himself was unable to navigate a dance floor.” Light quoted from the bio: “Under [Pomus’s] pen, the simple declaration of love he set out to write wavered, giving way to vulnerability and fear.” Emmylou and the band slowed the tempo, laid her tremulous vocal on top of it, and introduced a key change in the middle of the song, all to telling effect.
By highlighting the downbeat and the lugubrious in her vast body of work, I have failed to do justice to Emmylou. She does joyful too, as she did with the Nash Ramblers in the live version of Chuck Berry’s “C’est La Vie (You Never Can Tell)” below. That’s Sam Bush on fiddle. I’ve seen Sam live at the Minnesota Zoo amphitheater in Apple Valley. Like so many of the gentlemen who have backed Emmylou, he is a wonderful performer in his own right.
Emmylou’s work with Daniel Lanois on Wrecking Ball in 1995 revived a career that had fallen into something of a rut. The video below gives the title track, written by Neil Young, with Young himself on harmony. “I’ll wear something pretty in white…” It may not have been the highlight of the recording, but it got my attention. Wrecking Ball, incidentally, won a 1996 Grammy when it was shoehorned into the category of Contemporary Folk Recording.
I first saw Emmylou perform live with Spyboy at the State Theater in Minneapolis in February 2002 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,” a song written 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 stirring 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 declines simply to repeat old triumphs. She challenges herself with great material that has taken her beyond her roots in folk and country. 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; they were all well attired the evening we saw Emmylou with Spyboy in Minneapolis. I don’t understand the insertions over the audio in the second half of the video. I can say only: Listen up!
NOTE: I bonded with our late Internet friend Norm Geras over his Emmylou fanaticism. Cut short by his death in 2013, Norm’s compact Emmylou review provides a good guide and counterpoint to some of the points I make above. Even with Norm’s help, however, I have only skimmed the surface of Emmylou’s incredibly rich career. I have overlooked the line of duets to which she has contributed her harmony singing over the years as well as her trio work in the 1980’s with Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt.