This is something I've been meaning to do for a while, and Sunday morning is the time to do it. I put together below, from the posts making up The Emmylou Review, my opinions about the albums of Emmylou Harris. I have left out introductory and some other accompanying material from the original posts, the links to which are given at the bottom here. Otherwise, I have made only minor presentational changes.
1969 - Gliding Bird
Those who've got any way into the study of Marx's ideas will know about the Young Marx and the Mature Marx, and the debate about whether, between the one and the other, it's more a story of continuity or one, rather, of a sharp break. Well, with Emmylou, there's not so much a break between this first album of hers and what came after it, as a yawning chasm, a gulf, an interplanetary journey. This is juvenilia; it's before Emmylou became Emmylou. Don't try to obtain it, unless you have aspirations to completeness. It's truly awful. She even ruins some good songs written by other people. I'm obliged by the rules of my own review to pick out the following. Top track: 'Bobbie's Gone'. Runner-up: 'Gliding Bird'.
1975 - Pieces Of The Sky
Different ball-game. This is the real beginning of the story. Whatever else had happened to Emmylou to make the difference, one thing which had happened was Gram Parsons and the Grievous Angel album. If you don't own this, then listen, forget it, you ain't no kind of a dude. Your life may be rich in a thousand other ways, but is also hopelessly impoverished. Rectify the matter. Soon. Back to Pieces of the Sky, where the top track is Emmylou's immortal lament for Gram Parsons, and the runner-up belongs to what I like to describe as the 'about-to-drop-dead school' of country music, since 'crying-in-your beer school' doesn't quite encapsulate the pain and sheer yearningness of it all. Top track: 'Boulder To Birmingham'. Runner-up: 'Too Far Gone'. Bubbling-unders: 'Sleepless Nights'; 'Coat Of Many Colours'.
1976 - Elite Hotel
Proust didn't know the half of it. It's 1977 and me and 5-year old Soph wander into the little record shop (sic) in Didsbury to look for a birthday present for Wife of the Norm - or Adèle as she was in those days. I pick out this album to sample a few tracks. Why? Who knows? Track one is 'Amarillo'. Oh man, what a sound: Emmy, Hank de Vito on pedal steel, and James Burton, Herb Pedersen, Glen D Hardin and more. Next up is 'Together Again', also about-to-drop-dead school. We're out of there, me and Soph, Elite Hotel gift-wrapped for the old girl. I've a country-music pain in my heart just thinking about it. Top track: 'Sin City'. Runner-up: 'Together Again'. Bubbling-unders: 'Amarillo'; 'Satan's Jewel Crown'.
1977 - Luxury Liner
With Pieces of the Sky and Elite Hotel behind her, Emmylou had nothing to prove really, but she did now have a reputation to sustain, and my, but this album did that. It kicks off with the belting title track by Gram Parsons, and there's a lead-out on the same track with the electric guitars at full throttle, Albert Lee doing his stuff. Next up, Emmy sings one of Townes Van Zandt's very greatest songs, 'Pancho and Lefty'. And here, for the first time, Ricky Skaggs is in the band, playing fiddle and mandolin. (If you don't know Ricky Skaggs, get hold of his Live in London and just play 'Cajun Moon' for starters; listen, in particular, to the fiddles. But I digress. Back to Emmylou.) Top track: 'Pancho And Lefty'. Runner-up: 'Hello Stranger'. Bubbling unders: 'Luxury Liner'; 'When I Stop Dreaming'. Any album with these two for bubbling-unders... well, I'm lost for words.
1978 - Quarter Moon In A Ten Cent Town
A quieter and less dramatic album, but still fine. Duet vocal on the track I pick as top is by Fayssoux Starling. Now there's a name for someone singing duet vocal on a country album. Top track: 'Green Rolling Hills'. Runner-up: 'To Daddy'. Bubbling-unders: 'Easy From Now On'; 'Leaving Louisiana In The Broad Daylight'.
1979 - Blue Kentucky Girl
Very much a pair with Quarter Moon in my own view: consolidating a reputation already established, maintaining a standard, but unable to surpass the initial trio (I discount Gliding Bird) of Pieces Of The Sky, Elite Hotel and Luxury Liner - as what could surpass three such exceptional albums? Here, duet and harmony vocals on my favourite track are by Don Everly and Ricky Skaggs respectively, and the song is by the Louvin brothers, Charlie and Ira - as is 'When I Stop Dreaming' on 'Luxury Liner'. Same kind of heart-rending song: 'Every time you leave/ You tear the soul from me/ I die a little more each time we part'. Top track: 'Every Time You Leave'. Runner-up: 'Hickory Wind'. Bubbling-unders: 'Beneath Still Waters'; 'Rough And Rocky'.
1980 - Roses In The Snow
Roses In The Snow is the only Emmylou album, I think, that can challenge Luxury Liner and/or Elite Hotel for top spot in the Emmylou album rankings. How do I rank these three, in fact? For the answer to that question you must wait, mouth watering, until the end of the series. Anyway, Roses In The Snow was Emmy's most bluegrass album to this point, and a triumph. Ricky Skaggs is there again and, rightly or wrongly, I think I see his influence. Ranking the tracks was a great headache, except that rock solid throughout was my number 1 - by A.P. Carter. Top track: 'Gold Watch And Chain'. Runner-up: 'Jordan'. Bubbling-unders: 'Roses In The Snow'; 'Green Pastures'; 'The Boxer'.
1981 - Evangeline
Not in the same class as the foregoing, but a good 'un all the same. The title track is by Robbie Robertson and some of you will recall that Emmylou appears in The Last Waltz, singing this number with the Band. (The Band, now there's something for Canada to boast about. OK, partly.) Top track: 'I Don't Have To Crawl'. Runner-up: 'Evangeline'. Bubbling-unders: 'Spanish Johnny'; 'Millworker'; 'Mister Sandman'.
1981 - Cimarron
Cimarron has two truly great tracks. They're my top and runner-up, and by Chip Taylor and Townes Van Zandt, respectively. (Townes Van Zandt: I one day want to write a celebration of his music. If you don't know, find out. Believe me.) Emmy sings harmony vocal with herself on the first of them. But even with the bubbling-unders, for me the album is average within the Harris canon. Top track: 'Son Of A Rotten Gambler'. Runner-up: 'If I Needed You'. Bubbling-unders: 'Spanish Is A Loving Tongue'; 'Born To Run'; 'Tennessee Waltz'.
1982 - Last Date
A live gig, and her least good album after Gliding Bird. As I don't have anything more to say about it myself, I shamelessly plunder the following, which appeared at The Virtual Stoa not too long ago. Chris Brooke speaks there of 'a 1982 live recording of Emmylou Harris performing "I'm Movin' On", backed by the Hot Band going at full blast for three exceptional minutes. Excellent solos on fiddle, keyboards and guitar break up six verses of heroic singing, all of which transforms Hank Snow's country classic into something quite different, far more exhilarating, and altogether less smug'. It's not even my No. 1 on the album, yet I stand by my judgement of the album overall. Top track: 'Restless'. Runner-up: 'I'm Movin' On'. Bubbling-under: 'Buckaroo'/'Love's Gonna Live Here' (Medley).
1983 - White Shoes
You know, people, life can be hard. You write stuff on your blog, and there it is - written. Some smart person's going to show up and say, 'See, he said "weaker" [this refers to a remark in the preamble to the original post] - when anyone can tell... bada-boop bada-bing'. I only have to think about the best track on this album and I'm thinking about crying. And then put it on: gorgeous, melancholy piano intro and a near break in Emmylou's voice in the second line. It's quintessential country music yearning. Runner-up also damn good. So, not that I take back anything I've said, but you can give Last Date a miss; and then Cimarron and White Shoes, and just on account of their best numbers... well, if you could have them and don't, you're not in the best shape you could be. Top track: 'Like An Old-Fashioned Waltz'. Runner-up: 'Pledging My Love'. Bubbling-unders: 'On The Radio'; 'It's Only Rock 'N Roll'.
1985 - The Ballad Of Sally Rose
In my view, this is the first album since Roses In The Snow which can be spoken of as in the same league as that and some of the albums preceding it. One indication is how very difficult I found it to get the width of a cigarette paper between the half dozen best tracks even after several fresh listenings. Hence, as many as four bubbling-unders on this occasion. Ballad Of Sally Rose was written with Paul Kennerley and, like his earlier The Legend of Jesse James - on which Emmylou sings two tracks and is in company with Johnny Cash and Levon Helm among others - it is a concept album, telling the story of the eponymous singer. I can't fault it. It's Emmylou back to her best. If you only own a few of her albums, this should be one of them. Top track: 'Sweet Chariot'. Runner-up: 'Bad News'. Bubbling-unders: 'Woman Walk The Line'; 'Timberline'; 'Sweetheart Of The Rodeo'; 'KSOS'.
1986 - Thirteen
This album has two outstanding tracks, and they get the two top spots here, obviously. The first of them is a lovely ballad, written by the same duo, then husband and wife, that wrote the songs on Ballad Of Sally Rose. The second is a Cajun number which has also been done by the great D.L. Menard. Otherwise, by her standards it's good Emmylou but not in the same elevated bracket as the last. Top track: 'When I Was Yours'. Runner-up: 'Lacassine Special'. Bubbling-under: 'Mystery Train'.
1987 - Angel Band
One with a difference - an entire album of close harmony bluegrass gospel. The singing is excellent, with Vince Gill doing his thang on tenor vocals; but it'll depend on whether you like the genre. Top track: 'Bright Morning Stars'. Runner-up: 'When He Calls'. Bubbling-under: 'Where Could I Go But To The Lord'.
1989 - Bluebird
The strengths of this album, and its finest tracks, are heard in a number of heart-aching ballads, delivered in that pure voice of a sorrow that's been lived through, endured. Even in the one upbeat number here - 'Heartbreak Hill' - the lyric works against the vibrancy of the tune. Overall, this is definitely a crying-in-your-beer album. Top track: 'A River For Him'. Runner-up: 'Lonely Street'. Bubbling-unders: 'You've Been On My Mind'; 'Heartbreak Hill'; 'If You Were A Bluebird'.
1990 - Brand New Dance
If you haven't ever listened to this album, you need to, if for no other reason than to hear its most outstanding track, 'Rollin' And Ramblin' (The Death of Hank Williams)'. It is a sublime example of the genre. Here's the chorus:
Rollin' and ramblin'
Women loved him half to death
He sang with whiskey on his breath
His heart broke like a child's
Rollin' and ramblin'
The sun has set out on the trail
The hobo's drifted up the rail
He's taken his last ride
I also love these two lines (with 'routes' pronounced to rhyme with 'doubts'):
So they sent him on a night train South
Through the cities and the rural routes
The musicians on 'Rollin' and Ramblin' etc' include Jo-El Sonnier on French accordion and Stuart Duncan on fiddle, giving the rendition a Cajun feel. It's just stupendous. Also, don't miss the strains of Iris DeMent doing harmony vocals on 'Wheels Of Love'. Top track: 'Rollin' And Ramblin' (The Death of Hank Williams)'. Runner-up: 'Better Off Without You'. Bubbling-unders: 'Wheels Of Love'; 'Never Be Anyone Else But You'.
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'.
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' [referring to a remark of Chris Brooke's - that I'd persuaded him Emmylou is almost as good as I say she is]. Top track: 'Ballad Of A Runaway Horse'. Runner-up: 'Crescent City'. Bubbling-unders: 'Prayer In Open D'; 'Jerusalem Tomorrow'.
1995 - Wrecking Ball
This album was seen as a major change of direction for Emmylou, and in a way it was. She was backed here by a different kind of sound - produced by Daniel Lanois, who had come from working with Bob Dylan and U2, amongst others. This was no longer your regular country music, or country rock, instrumentation. Whether Emmylou's old fans found the change welcome or not, the album is outstanding. It has several great tracks, including covers of songs by Steve Earle, Lucinda Williams and Gillian Welch; and it has, above all, 'Blackhawk' written by Lanois himself. It is a song of genius, a small masterpiece, music as poetry: 'Blackhawk and the white winged dove'; 'Where the truth bites and stings'; 'Hold on to your aching heart'; 'Now we drink at Liberty Station / Another cup of muscatel / Wrapped in the strong arms of the Union / Raisin' kids from raisin' hell.' If you haven't got it, get it. Listen. It's just one more high point in a brilliant career. The only surprise to me about Wrecking Ball is that, as many times as I've heard it, I cannot avoid placing in the runner-up spot a song by Anna McGarrigle. Top track: 'Blackhawk'. Runner-up: 'Goin' Back To Harlan'. Bubbling-unders: 'Goodbye'; 'Sweet Old World'; 'Orphan Girl'.
1998 - Spyboy
I don't think this and the following two albums, as a group, are in the same class as those from Emmylou's best period. But that's a tough benchmark. Take them just on their own and the standard remains high. This one's the best of the three. It's a live album, reprising familiar Emmylou songs; they are therefore without the initial excitement of when you hear her deliver them first up. And 'Boulder To Birmingham', one of her greatest songs, isn't the equal here of the version on Pieces of the Sky. Yet there is some terrific stuff. 'Love Hurts' - which Emmylou first did with Gram Parsons and is a love-hurting song second to none - and 'Green Pastures' both get harmony and instrumental backings that hold you rapt. Top track: 'Love Hurts'. Runner-up: 'Green Pastures'. Bubbling-unders: 'Prayer In Open D'; 'Boulder To Birmingham'.
2000 - Red Dirt Girl
This album, for its part, has too many songs that I think of as being 'brown': meaning that the melody doesn't go anywhere much; there's not enough bright or dark, not enough soaring and sobbing. Still, there are two songs good enough for the top spots. Top track: 'One Big Love'. Runner-up: 'My Antonia'.
2003 - Stumble into Grace
Some of the same tendency here as on Red Dirt Girl, but there's more contrast and there are three first-rate tracks that I find it extremely difficult to put any real space between. Fine album, but as I said in the Spyboy review above, not like before. Top track: 'Can You Hear Me Now'. Runner-up: 'Jupiter Rising'. Bubbling-under: 'Cup Of Kindness'.
2008 - All I Intended To Be
Not like the halcyon days. But, leaving aside Spyboy (1998), in which she was singing songs she'd sung before, I think this is Emmylou's best album since Wrecking Ball (1995), surpassing both of the last two, Red Dirt Girl (2000) by a country mile, and Stumble Into Grace (2003) by less than that but by some, all the same. The album has two outstanding songs and two others that are very good indeed; the whole is well worth having even if you aren't an Emmylou completist. Still, I can hear what I think is confirmation that the fears I expressed here are well-founded: the voice doesn't always have the power to sustain a note like it used to, and a certain breathiness does the filling in. The songs I nominate as top track and runner-up were both written by Emmylou together with Kate and Anna McGarrigle. Must I think of revising my hitherto not very warm opinion of the music of the McGarrigle sisters? Top track: 'Sailing Round The Room'. Runner-up: 'How She Could Sing The Wildwood Flower'. Bubbling-unders: 'All That You Have Is Your Soul'; 'Gold'.
2011 - Hard Bargain
For the sake of completeness I should say something about Emmylou Harris's last album. I can no longer write with the same enthusiasm that I once did with respect to the albums of her greatest period. Hard Bargain isn't bad - but it's no longer top Emmylou Harris. As I've said before, the voice isn't what it was. More of the songs on this album are by Emmylou herself than is usual. Though over the years she's written some very fine songs - 'Boulder To Birmingham', 'Prayer In Open D' - there's none to match them here. Among the best songs on Hard Bargain is her farewell to the late Kate McGarrigle. Top track: Home Sweet Home. Runner-up: Darlin' Kate. Bubbling-under: The Ship On His Arm.
And for my ranking of the albums see here.