Emmylou Harris is my country music idol... as well as the dream gal of countless country heart-song enthusiasts worldwide. She made her debut in the early 1970s as the protege of alt-country pioneer Gram Parsons... After Parsons' death in 1974, Emmylou took up the torch, not only of his legacy, but of many of the older, traditional country acts that he had turned her onto. At a time when the Nashville establishment was riding high on the overly-sophisticated "countrypolitan" sound, Emmylou brought back the simplicity and wonder of country's golden years, reviving songs that had been hits for George Jones, the Louvin Brothers, and others. She also has helped dozens of musicians get a foothold in the country scene, either as songwriters or performers. Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt and Rodney Crowell all had songs on her early albums. Rodney also toured with her as a member of her late-'70s Hot Band; other alumni include Ricky Skaggs, Albert Lee, Barry Tashian and -- more recently -- alt-country songwriter Buddy Miller.
Known primarily as a song stylist and interpreter of other people's work, Emmylou has gradually emerged as a songwriter herself. Her musical style has changed, as well, becoming more ornate and pop-oriented, to the delight of some, and the dismay of others. Regardless of where you stand on the aesthetics of Emmylou, her role as a major influence on both the alt-country and neo-traditionalist scenes is profound and undeniable.
Emmylou Harris "Gliding Bird" (Jubilee, 1969) (LP)
(Produced by Ray Ellis)
This is, as I understand it, an album Emmylou made around 1969, in her days as a Washington, DC folkie, before she hooked up with the illustrious Gram Parsons... This is a very after-the-fact release... and, if the truth be told, a bit underwhelming. Her phrasing is unconfident and indistinct, and the music isn't really all that country. Even as an artifact of the great one's early days, there isn't a whole lot here to hold your attention. Features five songs(!) written by Emmylou herself, the title track, written by her then-husband, Tom Slocum, and a few cover tunes, including Fred Neil's "Everybody's Talkin' At Me," Bob Dylan's "I'll Be Your Baby Tonight" and an okay version of Hank Williams' "I Saw The Light." Apparently, Emmylou's not that fond of this record, but it still has historical value, showing her folk/pop origins... There was also a single that came out in 1970 on Jubilee that included the florid folk ballad, "Paddy," which was tied to an Irish film by the same name, although I think the song wasn't included on either the movie soundtrack or on the Gliding Bird LP.
Gram Parsons "G.P." (Warner Brothers, 1973)
Emmylou's first outing with the legendary Gram Parsons. Here, instead of trying to get hippies to play country music, Gram hauled in a bunch of crackerjack pickers and plunkers, including folks like Glen D. Hardin, James Burton and Buddy Emmons (who would later form the backbone of Emmylou's early band), as well as Barry Tashian (who once led the garage pop band, The Remains) and fiddle whiz Byron Berline. With the musical end of things so well taken care of, all that's left to look at is the singing and songwriting. Although Gram's most memorable songs aren't on here, there are lots of understated gems. Really, it's the singing you have to be critical of -- Gram's voice cracks constantly and strays off key, and he has trouble figuring out his phrasing as well. Likewise, Emmylou was a bit too eager to belt it out on her first big break, and you have to wince now and then when she takes center stage. Needless to say, Emmylou didn't take too long to figure her way around a recording studio... but it was a little rough there for a while. A great album which was magically conjured in improbable circumstances.
Gram Parsons "Grievous Angel" (Reprise, 1974)
Even with the persistent rough edges, this is a masterful album, where Gram and his posse really hit their groove. The musicians are more relaxed, and at last it doesn't seem like they feel they have to prove themselves: hippie-billy country has arrived. The vocals (especially Emmylou's) are sometimes still technically choppy, but Gram's warm, confident delivery sounds positively serene, and even the flubbed parts exude soulfulness and purpose. As the album winds down, Gram and Emmylou nail down their duets, particularly on "Love Hurts" and "In My Hour Of Darkness," which are two of the golden moments they are remembered for. One of the great "what-ifs" of all time is what would have happened with this ensemble if Parsons hadn't overdosed in the desert right after this was made. Sigh.
Gram Parsons & The Grievous Angels "Live, 1973" (Sierra Briar/Rhino, 1995)
A solid live performance featuring both Gram and Emmylou, this which has surfaced in many versions over the years. The most recent package is from Rhino Records, and has great sound quality and liner notes. Sweet stuff -- well worth checking into.
Emmylou Harris "Pieces Of The Sky" (Reprise, 1975)
Emmylou's first solo album was a revelation -- at the time people talked about her music as "country rock", but really what's notable is how she was hearkening back to the glory days of the country heart song. The album's radio hit was a cover of an old Louvin Brothers song, "If I Could Only Win Your Love" (the first of many fab Louvins covers)... From there, the album is a wild mishmosh of styles and eras -- a great version of Merle Haggard's "Bottle Let Me Down", an icky Beatles ballad ("For No One"), a Dolly Parton tune and (just to show there's no hard feelings towards the countrypolitan crowd) a nice take on Billy Sherrill's "Too Far Gone". Although this has the official stamp of her husband Brian Ahern's "Happy Sack Productions", the studio crew that would come to define Emmylou's sound in the '70s hasn't quite come together. Pianist Glen D. Hardin and super-picker James Burton are still on board from the Gram Parsons days, but Buddy Emmons seemed to be off doing something else that week... Also of note are the early vocals of Fayssoux Starling, who would act as Emmylou's vocal double on numerous duets for years to come. A little goopy around the edges, but still pretty cool.
Emmylou Harris "Elite Hotel" (Reprise, 1975)
Emmylou's sound continues to gel on this moderately uneven album. The best tracks are immortal - the rollicking "Feelin' Single, Seein' Double", the slow, mournful "Together Again", and particularly her definitive version of Gram Parson's apocalyptic "Sin City". There are a few miscalculations, however, such as an awkward spin at Hank Williams "Jambalaya" and yet another drippy Beatles cover ("Here, There and Everywhere"). These misfires, along with a few tunes in the slippery middle ground, may have been the sort of thing that a few early critics used to peg Emmylou as a dud. They were wrong, of course, as spunky and spontaneous tunes like "Ooh, Las Vegas" and a straight soulful cover of Don Gibson's "Sweet Dreams". As ever, great song selection is the hallmark of her style. A very good album, with some notable rough patches.
Emmylou Harris "Luxury Liner" (Warner, 1977)
I loved this record as a teenager -- over the years I've reluctantly come to admit it's a bit of a guilty pleasure. This is the Happy Sack sound at its apex: lush arrangements which capture the melodic simplicity of the best country music, while skillfully sculpting it into a multi-layered production style which maximizes the input of each and every musician. And it really is a fabulous ensemble, probably Emmylou's best band ever. Hardin, Gordy and drummer John Ware hold down the rhythmic end, while British guitar whiz Albert Lee steps in to fill James Burton's shoes, and a slew of other super-talented country loyalists also chime in, including Ricky Skaggs and Rodney Crowell. Albert Lee struts his stuff on the title track with a dazzling, multi-tracked guitar lead, and goes on to hold up his end for the rest of the album -- flashy, but soulful. Great song selection, perfect production, and a nice group-effort vibe throughout. I guess it's Emmylou's swooping vocals that make my love of this album a little embarrassing, but hey, it works for me. Highly recommended -- you should own the album itself, and not reply on best-of collections to find these songs.
Emmylou Harris "Quarter Moon In A Ten Cent Town" (Warner, 1978)
If I had to pick just one, I'd say this is my favorite Emmylou album. Features the "title" track, "Easy From Now On," written by Guy Clark's sweetie, Suzanna Clark, a whistful, evocative song which is one of Emmylou's finest moments... Other highlights include her version of Delbert McClinton's "Two More Bottles Of Wine," Rodney Crowell's boisterously paranoid hophead/jailhouse anthem, "Ain't Living Long Like This", and the catchier "Leavin' Louisiana In The Broad Daylight," as well as a nice Utah Phillips tune, "Green Rolling Hills." The album is perfectly paced, perfectly balancing the weepy with the upbeat. I strongly recommend you get the album itself, rather than look for the songs on some best-of collection. It's worth it to hear this the way it was originally put together.
Emmylou Harris "Blue Kentucky Girl" (Warner, 1979)
Well, wait a minute... maybe this album is even better! With her stellar version of the old George Jones weeper, "Beneath Still Waters", and a bunch of upbeat songs like "Even Cowgirls Get The Blues" and "Sister's Coming Home", this is the Happy Sack crew at its most boisterous and joyful... A really great record to sing along to, if you're ever in the mood. Lots of guest stars, too, including Tanya Tucker and an early meeting of the Dolly-Linda-Emmylou "Trio," on "Sister's Coming Home"... Again, this is an album you should own in its original form, not chopped up as part of a best-of package. HIGHLY recommended!
Emmylou Harris "Light Of The Stable" (Warner Brothers, 1979)
Old-school Emmylou fans have never been fond of this album, coming as it did, plunk in the middle of her peak country-rock years with the Hot Band, when she was quite simply on fire. But as a staple album of the Americana Christmas crowd, this disc has definitely proved its durability. And listening back, it is indeed quite nice -- much sparser and traditionally-oriented than one might imagine, with Emmylou employing many of the same players that would grace her bluegrass-y Roses In The Snow album, as well as guest stars such as Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt and Willie Nelson pitching in on various tunes. Some songs, like "Golden Cradle," are a bit too sugary, while others -- particularly her versions of well-known standards such as "Silent Night" are simply incandescent. Worth checking out! (By the way, other country holiday records are reviewed on their own page...)
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