Thanks, in no small part, to My Kind of Country, I’ve finally woken up to an artist I should’ve been loving years ago – Emmylou Harris. It’s weird, I’ve always known her musical catalog is incredible, and I remember when all her classic records from the 70s were re-released in 2004. I even had the rare opportunity of scoring an old vinyl of Blue Kentucky Girl when my college radio station was having a record sale in 2009. But I never took the time to buy her music and give her a chance – until now. I didn’t have an epiphany when the My Kind of Country staff chose her as the latest addition to their spotlight artist series, but rather chose to right a wrong. I’ve always known she was critically acclaimed and I had to find out why, for myself.
As the story on that old Blue Kentucky Girl vinyl goes, I had my radio show (country music of course) the day before the sale and since I was alone in the station decided to look over the collection and take what I wanted before it would be gone. I didn’t even know they had any country records, and was shocked when I saw Emmylou sitting there. I had always hoped it was a real find, and not some record Emmylou made when she was past her prime. After conducting about a minute’s worth of research I saw it won her a Grammy for Best Country Female Vocal performance (back when albums were allowed to win in vocal races, a practice I’ll never understand) and was considered her most pure country release when it came out in 1979. Better yet, it was a name your price sale and I only had to pay $1 for it. I’ll NEVER see that kind of deal again in my lifetime. I’m eagerly awaiting My Kind of Country’s review of that project.
Also, if I ever needed proof that Blue Kentucky Girl a gem, and my recent downloads of Pieces of the Sky, Elite Hotel, and Luxury Liner were worth their less then $10 price tag, it was something Kevin Coyne wrote on Country Universe yesterday morning – “She could’ve been Gram Parsons’ harmony singer for the rest of her career and been happy, but she ended up carrying on his legacy instead, becoming a Hall of Famer with the most consistently excellent catalog in country music history.” The proof is in the (really Kevin’s) writing.
In “discovering” her first two (at the time of this writing I haven’t listened to Luxury Liner) solo releases, I’ve found an artist with one of the most magnificent voices I’ve ever heard, marking her own distinctive path in the genre. In all my years listening to country music, I’ve never heard anyone quite like her. She has a voice like fine crystal and is a stunning balladeer. Harris can also pull off a honky tonk song better than most who came before her. But what I really respect and admire is her ability to create music that stands the test of time and doesn’t fall victim to trend. Listening to an Emmylou Harris album is like visiting a fine hotel – equal parts luxurious and sophisticated. Her’s is music for the ages and sounds even better in 2011 than it did more than forty years ago. By forging her own path she created a lasting identify that’s led her straight to the Country Music Hall of Fame.
Before this week, my only association with Ms.Harris was through her single, “If I Could Only Win Your Love” and her duet with Rodney Crowell, “My Baby’s Gone” from the excellent Livin’ Lovin’ Losin’ tribute album to the Louvin Brothers. I did purchase her 2003 Stumble Into Grace album but never could get into it (I’m giving it another spin in this new light). My grandfather had a copy of White Shoes and I never bothered to ask him why he only owned that particular recording of her’s. And of course, there was the Blue Kentucky Girl vinyl. I also own Trio II, the follow-up record with Harris, Dolly Parton, and Linda Ronstadt but have yet to buy their 1987 original. But now I am so immersed in her catalog, I want to get my hands on everything Harris has ever sung. I admire those who refuse to give in to pressure and do their own thing. By being an original, she’s carved her own place in history.
Which is odd given that Harris has sung more cover tunes than most singers I can remember. It’s partly true that if you name a hit country single, Harris has likely sung her own version of it. Throughout her career she’s wrapped her voice around “Sleepless Nights,” “Coat of Many Colors,” “Sweet Dreams,” “To Daddy,” “Poncho and Lefty,” “On The Radio,” “Together Again,” and countless others. On many occasions Harris had big hit singles with these songs. For instance her cover of “Sweet Dreams” was the only version of the song to top the charts.
Even more than that, she’s influenced most female singers who’ve come along in her wake. Chely Wright paid tribute to Emmylou twice – recording “Actin’ Single/Seeing Double” on her 1997 album Let Me In and “C’est La Vie” on 2005’s The Metropolitan Hotel. Martina McBride lent her voice to “Two More Bottles of Wine” on her 1995 album Wild Angles, Miranda Lambert closed her 2007 Crazy Ex-Girlfriend album with a version of “Easy From Now On,” and Trisha Yearwood recorded “Women Walk The Line,” on 1992’s Hearts In Armor. None of these covers were released as singles, but they’re worth checking out. Plus, it’s also worth nothing that Wright’s cover of “C’est La Vie,” a #6 single for Harris in 1977, is a cover of a cover – Chuck Berry wrote the song and released the first version of it in 1964. Plus, you can hear her influence in singer-songwriters Tift Merrit, Patty Griffin, and others. And while not a cover, Joey + Rory, as well as Australian country singer Catherine Britt, recored a tribute to Harris with the song “Sweet Emmylou.” It was written by Rory Feek and Britt and featured on J+R’s debut album The Life of a Song in 2008.
As I’m learning more and more about Emmylou Harris, I’m seeing how indelible her stamp on not only country but modern music continues to be. While she isn’t having chart hits today, she continues to release album after album and even has a new collection of music Hard Bargain and a single, “The Road” out right now. It’s also worth noting her contribution to the classic O Brother, Where Art Thou soundtrack and her 2005 Grammy win for her song “The Connection.” While the consistency of her newer music is up for discussion, she hasn’t stopped wowing music critics and fans alike since her days with Gram Parsons.
Another memory of Harris comes courtesy of the free digital download Sarah McLachlan gave fans who signed up for the Lilith newsletter in anticipation of the 2010 revival of the tour – a live duet version of “Angel” with McLachlan and Harris. This version blows the studio track out of the water with gorgeousness and a powerful intensity that elevates the song to new and far greater heights. When those two sing together, it’s magic. I really wanted Harris to be on the Boston date of the tour but it wasn’t in the cards. The recording more than makes up for it, but it couldn’t ever compare to the live experience. No recording ever can.
As it turns out, I may have been loving Emmylou Harris indirectly all these years. But now that I’ve put a direct focus on it, I’m discovering what I’ve been missing out on. It’s criminal that I’ve never heard “Boulder to Birmingham” before this week. A song of that stature is so rare and a vocal like that so delicate it’s amazing I’ve never crossed paths with this recording before. And if you haven’t heard it the song, you should. You might not know the history of the track, it’s a tribute to Gram Parsons, but it doesn’t mean you’ll enjoy it any less. And as far as covers go, Parton recorded a version of “Birmingham” on her 1976 album All I Can Do.
And that’s what I’m finding with both Pieces of the Sky and Elite Hotel. It’s really cool to come at music from the perspective of a listener and a fan opposed to someone so focused on that particular album’s success. I have no history with her music, so I can enjoy every track with the same intensity. And unlike most singers, I’ve found every track as good and if not better than the last. Harris isn’t a filler artist, she knew how to make complete albums. I admire anyone who can look at a project as a whole, not as a couple of singles paired with forgettable fluff. Trust me when I say, there is nothing unmemorable about Emmylou Harris.
It’s funny, I’ve always been wondering which artists out there have done the near impossible – created complete discographies with their music. You know, where each album they make is as essential a listen as the one preceding it. Most artists have at least one dud among their many records. I’ve thought about the singers I love like Patty Loveless, Trisha Yearwood, Alison Krauss, and others who have made great albums throughout their careers. But I think Emmylou Harris comes closer than anyone else I’ve ever heard to doing so. When Kevin said that about Harris, I knew my search was over.
The closest any artist has come to matching Harris’s unparalleled consistency is Miranda Lambert. With just three albums under her belt, she’s begun a career destined for the history books. While she has more of Loretta Lynn’s spunk, than Harris’s quiet intensity, Lambert has proven with every single she’s ever sent to radio, she knows a fantastic song when she hears it. And like Harris, she knows how to write them, too. Which is what I most admire about Lambert. she’s carrying on the same ideals artists like Lynn and Harris put into place forty to fifty years ago. You cannot ask for anything more in a modern country singer.
Which is what made Harris so important in the first place – she created the groundwork for every female country singer to come through the ranks after her. And most will never live up to her example not because they don’t want to, but they don’t have nearly what it takes. In thinking about what’s made her so special, I’ve come to understand why she’s such a revered legend. In my generation she’s known more for letting her hair go prematurely grey than she is for her music. Which is true for most of the artists who’ve built country music – they’re not known so much for their great music anymore.
And that’s why country music blogs are such an important piece of the overall listener experience. They help to bridge together the legends and the new folk so we don’t forget where we’ve come from or where we’re going. It’s that place in the middle country radio lost all those years ago. By bringing Emmylou Harris back to the forefront of American thinking, My Kind of Country has offered a sort of answer to why modern Nashville isn’t the great mecca it used to be. It isn’t because the artists of today will never match up to the greatness of those like Harris, but because the soul is missing in most of the hits of today. Emmylou Harris has that soul, and each of her records from the 70s proves that more and more.