The apparent effortlessness with which Emmylou Harris performs songs can belie her tenacity in finding and internalizing them in the first place. One anecdote in Peter Cooper’s track-by-track notes on Songbird has Harris stalking a mystery song she heard on “A Prairie Home Companion”, long before the internet put every lyric a Google search away. She asked around and found that Chet Atkins had taped “Sonny” off the television with a cassette recorder (a cheerfully quotidian thing for Chet to do). Thus did Emmylou, today a passionate adopter of animals, give yet another song a new home and a new life.
Every song has a story, but Emmylou’s oeuvre is especially rich in those narratives because she’s searched so widely and so well, and she’s been so influential in helping great songwriters climb rungs, sometimes six at a time, in their own careers. Listening (and reading) through Songbird is to be reminded of that, even as we hear her face down her own muse and add her songwriter’s voice to those of her foundlings.
Harris’ familiar and charting work has been anthologized several times, so this had to be, as she announces at the top of her brief sleeve note, “a very different retrospective,” focused on album cuts worthy of a fresh listen, plus live tracks and tribute project duets. A reasonably dedicated Emmylou fan with even a handful of her albums will recognize plenty of the 78 songs here, but they offer that twinge of distant, remembered delight.
When would I next have gone to my shelves to seek out her version of Leonard Cohen’s “Ballad Of A Runaway Horse”? Who knows? Am I glad Harris used this project to remind me of her empathic reading of same? Beyond words. Sure, in this iPod age, you could drag and drop together a perfectly listenable playlist from a deep Emmylou album collection. But it likely wouldn’t have the sensitive selection or sequenced magic of this vintner’s reserve approach to a box set.
Nor would you have access to the thirteen unreleased songs included, starting with an alternate take on “Clocks”, an Emmylou original from her obscure Gliding Bird debut album of 1970. It’s sweet and saturated with Joni Mitchell’s influence, but merely hints at the immensity of the oeuvre to come. Other newly issued standouts include a pair of outtakes from the Trio sessions with Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt, a timely take on Guy Clark’s “Immigrant Eyes”, and a moving “Snowin’ On Raton” from the Townes Van Zandt catalogue.
Discs one and two track more or less chronologically. On the last two, songs flow together in clusters, connected by era, topic or spirit, as when three duets from a Gram Parsons tribute album segue exquisitely into one of the greatest versions of “Wheels” ever recorded, a live take with the Seldom Scene. Elsewhere, an unreleased duet on “Highway Of Heartaches” with writer Carl Jackson rides a Hank Williams vibe right into “Alone And Forsaken”, cut with Mark Knopfler.
Another attraction here is a DVD with seven remarkable live TV performances, plus a 1981 Warner Bros. attempt at a concept music video that produces the only cringe-worthy moments in the project, though certainly not because of the music.
Songbird is too ambitious to take in and appreciate quickly. It flows by beautifully as music just to have on, of course, but if you’re listening for the little things, your nuance detector will be overheated by the middle of disc two. Harris is as good a judge of her own work as she was of the songs when they were still raw material.