In Review: Emmylou Harris - Hard Bargain

Few artists can render a song with as much unaffected grace and sincerity as Emmylou Harris.

It’s a gift she’s conveyed time and again as an interpreter, covering Texas troubadours (Townes Van Zandt, Rodney Crowell) and Nashville traditionalists (Harlan Howard, Billy Sherrill) with equal conviction. And that authenticity highlights her extensive catalog, one which has not only challenged her audience throughout her singular career but has also expanded the vernacular — if not the very definition — of country music.

It’s only natural, then, that the same qualities she invests in other artists’ compositions would also inform her own sensibilities as a songwriter. Though not a role she’s undertaken too often, in the instances when she has put pen to paper — “Boulder to Birmingham” and “Michelangelo” come to mind — she’s shown that her relative lack of writing experience comes not from any lack of talent.

A compelling case in point is her new LP, Hard Bargain (Nonesuch Records), on which Harris penned nearly all of the songs and delivers them with the same deference as any definitive cover in her repertoire. "My Name Is Emmett Till" is harrowing, not just for what Harris recounts and reflects upon — in 1955, Till, a 14-year-old black boy, was savagely murdered in Mississippi after he’d been seen talking to a white woman — but also for the dignity with which she eulogizes the young victim and his enduring legacy.

Assuaging some of the more solemn observations are moments of rambunctious, rockabilly spunk (“New Orleans,” “Six White Cadillacs”) and bittersweet laments (“Goodnight Old World,” “Lonely Girl”), giving the album an overall-eclectic dimension.

Then there’s "The Road," a poignant yet musically rugged requiem to Gram Parsons. Coming from anybody else, serenading the Flying Burrito Brother could seem like a means to exploit his legend. Harris knew the man, of course, and anyone who has mourned the death a loved one can empathize with her still-palpable grief, knowing that an hour of darkness is just a metaphor for a lifetime.


First published as Music Review: Emmylou Harris - Hard Bargain on Blogcritics.

Views: 101

Tags: Americana, CD Review, Emmylou Harris, Gram Parsons, Hard Bargain, alt.country, country, folk, songwriting

Comment by Joanne Hurley on May 3, 2011 at 5:03am
Thank you for the thoughtful and well-thought-out review. Upon my very first listen to Hard Bargain I was struck by the maturity of Emmylou's writing and her ability to tell a story. And that voice! While maybe not still in the upper registers of her heyday, the voice is still Emmy's best instrument. I've listened to Hard Bargain many times now, and each time I'm struck by the flow and coherence of the set. I especially have enjoyed the videos included in the Deluxe Edition - I love to listen to songwriters talk about their craft and their process. IMHO this release stands proudly in the pantheon of Emmylou's catalog and should be the forerunner of much more music from my favorite artist of all time.

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Created by No Depression Feb 17, 2009 at 9:06pm. Last updated by No Depression Sep 24, 2012.