Emmylou Harris: Wrecking Ball; Red Dirt Girl; Stumble Into Grace
As everybody knows, Emmylou Harris came to prominence in the 1970s as a vocalist and band leader who primarily interpreted other people’s work in a country-rock style. Her work in that vein is extremely good, and I’ve always loved her voice, but as a style country and country-rock are not my favorites, so I didn’t follow her work closely and for many years only knew it through a couple of albums, such as the exquisite Roses in the Snow (1980). In later years, through the ‘80s and most of the ‘90s, I assumed she had settled into a pattern along the lines of other artists who were primarily vocalists (say, Linda Ronstadt or Rod Stewart), doing more or less the same thing she always had. It was not until sometime in the late ‘90s when my friend Daniel Nichols sent me a tape that included several songs from Wrecking Ball that I realized she was developing into something far more than a gifted performer.
I’m trying to keep these weekly reviews brief, so I’ll get to the point: with the three albums named above Emmylou Harris has created a body of work that in its combination of beauty and profundity is the equal of anything anyone has ever done in American popular music. The best tracks here are as good as anything by Dylan, Cohen, Waits, Springsteen, or any other of the bardic singer-songwriters of the past forty-plus years one could name. Let me emphasize that: anything by any of them. I suppose one could quibble mildly with that judgment by pointing out how important the producer’s work is in creating the haunting mysterious atmospheres which fill these recordings—Daniel Lanois’s influence is certainly obvious and huge on Wrecking Ball—but they don’t all have the same producer, so we have to assume that Harris is ultimately responsible. Nor does she write all the songs, but clearly hers is the vision that chooses and shapes them.
The term “cosmic American music” was coined ca. 1970 by Gram Parsons, who seems to have been a sort of guru for Harris as well as her tragically lost love (I’ve assumed that he is the subject of the gorgeous and heartbreaking “Michaelangelo” from Red Dirt Girl). It was left to Harris, carrying on alone after Parsons’ early death, to bring the idea to fulfillment in a way that I don’t suppose they could have imagined in the early ‘70s. There could be no more apt description of this music, although it may not give you much of a clue as to how it actually sounds. For that, you need to listen. I included Wrecking Ball in my desert island list a few weeks back, but probably any or all of these three albums would qualify. Possibly Red Dirt Girl would be the best place to start, as it includes “The Pearl,” which would be in the running for the best song from the three and contains the lines:
If there’s no heaven
What’s this hunger for?
That question might serve as an epigraph for all three albums: they’re filled with an intense and even desperate yearning, sometimes spiritual, sometimes erotic-romantic, sometimes both. I’m tempted to quote more of that lyric but you really need to hear it sung.