As huge a star as Emmylou Harris is, and as long and varied as her career has been, her achievements still don’t get their due, in my mind. Because virtually every article or review about Harris, for 30 years now, casts her as a protégé of Gram Parsons (indeed, she often speaks of herself in that context) – but she’s so much more, and always has been.
Parsons, who died of a drug overdose in 1973 at the age of 26, pioneered country-rock and remains a huge cult figure. But in the early days of hippies doing country, whether it was Parsons’ Flying Burrito Brothers or the Byrds (of which he was briefly a member) or Commander Cody or Asleep At The Wheel, country audiences (and radio stations) wouldn’t give these acts the time of day; their audience was almost strictly a rock crowd.
When Harris, Parsons’ former backup singer, carried on his tradition, she mixed a more traditional brand of country than was coming out of Nashville with an eclectic blend of contemporary songs. And without resorting to anything that smacked of “crossover,” she achieved mass success with rock and country audiences alike. She was based in Los Angeles, instead of Nashville, and used primarily the same band in the studio as she took on the road. In many ways, she was the link between ’60s Bakersfield iconoclasts Buck Owens and Merle Haggard and Dwight Yoakam’s rise in the ’80s.
The reasons for her broad appeal can be found on Harris’ first five Warner Brothers/Reprise albums, recently expanded and reissued by Rhino. She possesses one of the country music’s (or pop’s) truly unique voices; her choice of material and interpretive skills are impeccable; and she surrounded herself with incredible, distinctive musicians – not to mention the perfect producer in Brian Ahern, who manned these five titles and six more during their prolific association.
Harris inherited the players who’d backed Parsons on G.P. and Grievous Angel, including several alumni of Elvis Presley’s band – pianist Glen D. Hardin, drummer Ronnie Tutt, and guitar legend James Burton – to record 1975’s Pieces Of Sky. The repertoire mixed material from the Louvin Brothers and Merle Haggard (“Tonight The Bottle Let Me Down,” with Burton’s Tele trading solos with Bernie Leadon’s Dobro) with Emmy’s own moving “Boulder To Birmingham,” newcomer Rodney Crowell’s “Bluebird Wine,” and a beautiful reading of the Beatles’ “For No One,” with Amos Garrett supplying his typically unexpected (but always perfect) bends.
By the time Elite Hotel was released at the end of that year, Harris’ Hot Band was a force to be reckoned with – as evidenced by the three live tracks included on the original LP, including a version of “Sweet Dreams” that matches the high standard set by Patsy Cline and Parsons’ “Ooh, Las Vegas,” featuring some spirited sparring between Burton’s chicken-pickin’ and Hank DeVito’s pedal steel. Elsewhere, Burton proves he can play the minimalist, on “Wheels” and “One Of These Days,” relying on a phase-shifter (I’m guessing a Mutron Bi-Phase) to fatten up his tone.
Whether Elite Hotel or 1976’s Luxury Liner was Harris’ high-water mark is a matter of taste. The former doesn’t have a weak track among its dozen, but the latter saw the addition of Ricky Skaggs (on fiddle and mandolin) and, more importantly, lead guitarist Albert Lee, who replaced Burton in the Hot Band. James still shows up – playing electric to Albert’s acoustic on “You’re Supposed To Be Feeling Good” – but Lee shows off his Parsons/White String Bender on Chuck Berry’s “You Never Can Tell” and burns down the house with Bender licks and plenty of slapback on the title track. And, again, there are great songs, like Townes Van Zandt’s “Pancho & Lefty.”
For 1978’s Quarter Moon In A Ten Cent Town, Emmylou made a conscious effort to concentrate on contemporary material. That may or may not be the reason, but the album is probably the weakest of the five in this batch – bearing in mind that the other four set the bar awfully high. The departure of Rodney Crowell could be another reason, although he appears on a couple of songs, including his classic-to-be, “Ain’t Living Long Like This” – with Lee’s splattering double-stops.
Harris closed out the decade with her truest country album to date. With Blue Kentucky Girl, she determined to stifle critics who attributed her success to her rock and pop leanings, and delivered a hardcore country album that remains a classic. Lee trades solos with Skaggs’ fiddle on “Sister’s Coming Home” (and Emmylou finally took advantage of Ricky’s harmony vocals on LP), and Burton shows his melodic side on “Everytime You Leave.”
Harris’ next album was an even bigger anti-establishment step, the all-acoustic Roses In The Snow, which presaged the success of the O Brother, Where Art Thou soundtrack by almost two decades. She eventually moved to Nashville, but continues to push her own limits and country music’s envelope as few artists in the genre’s history have. But this five-album run represents her dynasty years.
Rhino’s expanded versions of the albums contain two bonus tracks each, but in most cases the added material is not from the same period as the CD it’s grafted onto. For instance, Luxury Liner‘s bonus selections feature steel guitarist Steve Fishell, who replaced Hank DeVito in a later edition of the Hot Band, along with Don Heffington and Mike Bowden replacing John Ware and Emory Gordy on drums and bass, respectively, but no dates are given – on the album cuts or the bonus tracks. And Quarter Moon is padded out with two live tracks featuring Fishell, multi-instrumentalist Barry Tashian, and guitarist Frank Reckard, who replaced Albert Lee – again, with no information regarding when or where they came from. They’re great tracks, but considering Rhino chose to release these five albums (her ’70s output) simultaneously, they shake up the continuity – which Harris and Ahern were obviously meticulous about.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s June ’04 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.