I introduce this latest instalment of the Review with a piece on Emmylou Harris contributed by reader Chris Shannon. It was written by him in 1999 for another purpose. I'm grateful to Chris for allowing me to use it here.
It's easy to forget that the current revival of interest in country music as a musical form of merit and serious social comment, though owing something to the recent upsurge in new, young talent, also owes an unsung debt to forerunners from the 1970s. One of these older but hardly geriatric forerunners, seven-time Grammy Award-winner Emmylou Harris, still writes, records, tours and ranks.My own general introduction on this occasion can now be short and snappy. The two albums to be reviewed this time are both exceptionally good. What Chris said. Get them.
Appropriately for a country singer, Harris was Southern-born in Birmingham, Alabama, 1947. But she began her career billed as a folk singer, at the tail-end of the 1960s at the heart of the East Coast counterculture in Greenwich Village, NYC. Her first album, Gliding Bird, cut in 1970, is still regarded by fans and critics alike as mediocre and unrepresentative of the superb work that followed.
Harris subsequently moved to Washington DC, where a former Byrd, the late and legendary Gram Parsons who was looking for a female collaborator, heard her and signed her. He reckoned their voices matched perfectly. Emmylou contributed to his two studio albums, GP (1973) and the superlative Grievous Angel (1974).
After Gram's drug-induced death in 1973, Emmylou was persuaded to record a solo album employing the same topflight LA session musicians - informally known as the Hot Band – that Parsons had used. With this virtuoso-rich lineup in support, she recorded a series of brilliant albums beginning with Pieces of the Sky (1975) and (her first Grammy-winning release) Elite Hotel (1976). These albums saw her categorized in the country rock genre then prevalent thanks to crossover artists like the Eagles and the Flying Burrito Brothers. For many people at that time her appearances on Bob Dylan's Desire (1976) and the valedictory The Last Waltz (1978) by the Band - Dylan's former backing crew - was their first encounter with Harris's clear-as-springwater vocals, if not her staggering abilities as a songsmith. Hearing her on these two seminal 1970s releases seems to have prompted many new fans to go out and buy her early solo albums, most of which enjoyed both critical acclaim and commercial success.
1979's Blue Kentucky Girl, Emmylou's second Grammy-winner, was the first album she released that was deemed to have given her pure country credibility. The albums that followed met with different degrees of success, but more recent years have seen her once more regaining her exalted position in the country music pantheon, where she rightfully belongs. Over the years Emmylou has collaborated with most of the greats of country who are still around, as well as numerous star musicians from other genres. She has sung with Linda Ronstadt, Willie Nelson, George Jones, Roy Orbison, Neil Young, Bob Dylan and many, many others.
In 1992, when Emmylou's star had fallen to what seemed its lowest point - her records weren't exactly flying off the shelves - her 20-year recording association with Warner Brothers records was ignominiously concluded. She then found herself in the paradoxical position of being, at once, a living country legend, a must-have guest performer in the studio, and an unprofitable, un-hip, aging artist - stabled alongside younger, platinum-selling musicians (covering the same musical territory) who looked up to her in awe. Emmylou's riposte to those stupid enough to write her off was to change musical tack once more and engage with, for her, new and unfamiliar genres, with her 1995 album Wrecking Ball. The Best Contemporary Folk Album Grammy she gained as a result must have been a satisfying vindication for her courageous, creative shift.
If you've never heard Emmylou sing and play, do yourself a favour: next time you're thinking of buying the latest country name to be hyped don't do it! Get yourself some Emmylou Harris instead. (Chris Shannon)
1992 - At The Ryman
Shortly after she released this album, I saw Emmylou in Manchester with the Nash Ramblers, who accompany her here. It was one of the best country music gigs I've ever been at. I'm talking top three, or maybe even top two. What musicians! The album kicks off with a version of Steve Earle's Guitar Town, and it doesn't look back from there. In the Emmylou canon I think of it as a sort of companion, both in style of music and in quality, to Roses In The Snow. There's a great fiddle break on Montana Cowgirl. Emmylou, speaking to the Ryman audience, at the end of track 2:
Is it wonderful to sit out there? I mean, is this a great place to sort of feel the hillbilly dust? I played a lot of different places in the last 16 years, from really megabuck, you know, multi-million dollar places that really sound terrible to, uh, one place in Lake Charles, Louisiana, where the only way to get to the stage was to climb through a window... Anyway, this is the best; this is the best.Top track: Montana Cowgirl. Runner-up: Walls Of Time. Bubbling-unders: Get Up John; Guitar Town; Smoke Along The Track.
(If I may add a digressive footnote for this album - and I may, because I just gave myself permission - Guitar Town was also the opening track on Steve Earle's 1986 debut album of the same name - therefore Guitar Town. If you're not acquainted with it, that's what's known as a hole in your culture. If you don't own it, make sure to get it along with these two Emmylous.)
1994 - Cowgirl's Prayer
This album has four fine songs which I found extraordinarily difficult to separate. In the end I've gone for Leonard Cohen's Ballad Of A Runaway Horse as top track, but there's not much in it. Crescent City, written by Lucinda Williams, is a stunner. It contains the line: 'And the longest bridge I've ever crossed over Pontchartrain'. Any song with Pontchartrain gets my vote. Jerusalem Tomorrow has a passage of Klezmer-style clarinet in it. Prayer In Open D is written by Herself: 'And the rock of ages I have known / Is a weariness down in the bone / I used to ride it like a rolling stone / Now I just carry it alone'. Amen to that. Listen to these two albums, Chris; then tell me if you're prepared to stand by 'almost as good'. Top track: Ballad Of A Runaway Horse. Runner-up: Crescent City. Bubbling-unders: Prayer In Open D; Jerusalem Tomorrow.
(The Emmylou Review #7 is here. It has links to the earlier instalments.)