Emmylou Harris turned 75 yesterday. In the world of the Cosmic American Music, celebration is in order. Skipping over great swaths of her career, I thought I might take the occasion to draw on previously posted notes to revisit her story along with a few of the videos that reflect her artistry. As always, we are at best only munching like giraffes on the top of the trees.
I was a latecomer to Emmylou’s artistry. I discovered her indirectly through my love for the music of the the Byrds. 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). Emmylou tells a more complicated version of the story in the revealing interview with Joe Chambers linked below (in the Note at the bottom of this post).
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 for him in a big way, at least as a teacher. She pays 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 (written with Bill Danoff, recording 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 an accomplished interpreter. 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” ends on a note of transcendence. It also appears on Cowgirl’s Prayer. In concert she sends the band offstage and performs the song accompanying 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 fronted 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 for Blue Kentucky Girl in 1979. 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.
Emmylou collaborated memorably with Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt. Their recording of Neil Young’s dreamy “After the Goldrush” on Trio II (recorded in 1994, released in 1999) was only one of the highlights of their work together. The ethereal arrangement is by Linda Ronstadt. They performed it live together in perfect harmony several times to promote their collaboration.
Emmylou took the lead on Trio II‘s “When We’re Gone, Long Gone” by Kieran Kane and Jamie O’Hara (a/k/a The O’Kanes). In the live promo video version below the ladies are backed by musicians including Sam Bush on mandolin and Carl Jackson on guitar (I think).
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 in the live version of Chuck Berry’s “C’est La Vie (You Never Can Tell)” below. New Grass Revival mandolinist Sam Bush saws away on fiddle. I’ve seen Sam live at the Minnesota Zoo amphitheater in Apple Valley. Like the other gentlemen who have backed Emmylou over the years, he is an outstanding musician in his own right.
And then came Emmylou At the Ryman in 1992 with the Nash Ramblers — Jon Randall Stewart, Al Perkins, Sam Bush, Roy Huskey, Jr., and Larry Atamaniuk. Stewart, Perkins, and Bush are multi-instrumental artists. Emmylou opened the set with a rousing version of Steve Earle’s “Guitar Town.” The album, by the way, may have saved the Ryman from its scheduled destruction.
“Get Up John” is a bona fide Sunday morning song.
Emmylou’s work with Daniel Lanois on Wrecking Ball in 1995 took her career to another level. The video below presents the title track, written by Neil Young, with Young himself on harmony. “I’ll wear something pretty in white…” Wrecking Ball, incidentally, won a 1996 Grammy when it was shoehorned into the category of Contemporary Folk Recording. It is a fantastic set. Do not miss Wrecking Ball.
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.
Driven by Buddy Miller’s work on guitar, they turned in a supercharged version of Hot Band alum Rodney Crowell’s “Ain’t Living Long Like This.”
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 aspects 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 haven’t gotten to half the discs in my Emmylou collection. Her work before and after Wrecking Ball is full of riches I haven’t even intimated. I therefore want to add that 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 rich career. And one more thing. Emmylou looks back on her career here in a terrific Musicians Hall of Fame and Museum interview with Joe Chambers.