Emmylou Harris – Lookin’ for the water from a deeper well
Emmylou Harris’ latest release is a nearly accidental album. “Unplanned” as she puts it, Spyboy — which came out Aug. 11 on Eminent Records — began solely as an attempt to get a really good live-in-concert version of Daniel Lanois’ “The Maker” as a kind of demo for a studio recording. Instead, as tape rolled at several venues on Emmylou’s Wrecking Ball tour, an album began to seem possible, perhaps inevitable.
While newcomers to Emmylou, attracted by the Lanois-produced Wrecking Ball (1995), may launch a great journey of discovery through this release, longtime fans will likely savor the rare pleasure of an authentic retrospective. Harris spoke at some length about that in an early July interview in a motel suite sitting-room at Nashville’s Spence Manor. The Music Row “Motel of the Mysteries” (to grab a title from writer David Macaulay) is notable for its aggressive anonymity — no sign, no office, no open lobby — although its guitar-shaped pool seems to be the oasis of choice for the countless Nashville teens who swear they’ve skinny-dipped there on hot summer nights.
The unplanned Spyboy happened, Harris explains, when she and the crew decided to roll tape during several shows while touring behind the Wrecking Ball album with musicians Brian Blade, Daryl Johnson and Buddy Miller (and a little help from Julie Miller too). Unlike some country artists, whose road bands mimic the licks of the studio session players on the recordings, Harris has by and large brought the same band members on tour that recorded with her in the studio, from the days of her electric Hot Band to the acoustic Nash Ramblers to the eclectic Spyboy, whose name doubles as the title of the new record. (Spyboy is also the inaugural release for Eminent, a new label started by Harris’ former manager, Monty Hitchcock.)
Last Date (1982) and At The Ryman (1992) were also live recordings, but Harris emphatically distinguishes those projects from the Spyboy release. Those albums featured material deliberately worked up for capture as “virginal” presentations, which “might not be the very best version you ever play” but yet feature “the freshness of discovery,” as she put it. This project, on the contrary, seeks to preserve the best performances of classic Harris signature songs backed by a small, tight ensemble, with a new departure into complex percussion plus lush electric guitar somewhat reminiscent of the Hot Band era of James Burton and Albert Lee.
“The Maker” is the only new song on a 14-cut album, but her description of Spyboy as “an interesting retrospective” is certainly accurate and even a bit understated, given the new level of maturity in evidence here. Longtime Emmylou fans can indulge a pleasure rarely provided in country music recording — namely, a real interpretive rethinking over a quarter-century of searing songs, including “Love Hurts”. First recorded in duet with mentor Gram Parsons, “Love Hurts” is offered here in duet with Spyboy singer-guitarist and album co-producer Buddy Miller, who manages, amazingly, to be vocally present even as he respectfully leaves Gram’s slot open for listeners mentally to add Parsons’ voice.
Included, too, is Emmylou’s eulogy for Parsons, “Boulder To Birmingham” (which appeared on her major-label solo debut Pieces Of The Sky in 1975), along with her own “Prayer In Open D” (first recorded on 1993’s Cowgirl’s Prayer). Other titles include “My Songbird” and “Ain’t Living Long” (Quarter Moon In A Ten Cent Town, 1978), “Calling My Children Home” (At The Ryman), “Tulsa Queen” (Luxury Liner, 1977), “Wheels” (Elite Hotel, 1975), “Born To Run” (Last Date), and three cuts from Wrecking Ball — “Where Will I Be”, “All My Tears”, and Dave Olney’s “Deeper Well”, the last of these arguably Wrecking Ball’s standout for listeners discovering the rich resources of Emmylou’s lower register.
(A reassuring note here for those who often come to resent the too-loud crowd noises included on many live-in-concert albums: Applause and cheers throughout are fairly subtle accents throughout Spyboy.)
Harris, often commended for making every album a concept album, takes pains to set Spyboy apart from compilations of hits — which in her case includes Profile (1978) and Profile II (1984), as well as the three-disc box Portraits (1996). She has “a hard time shaking hands with best-of albums” because, she explains, “those songs don’t belong together,” meaning such compilations are an odd mix of musical strangers whose common ground is the mere accident of radio and chart success. Similarly, she implies, the boxed set is internally discordant because of the flux within the musical ensembles. Portraits spans not only the eras of the Hot Band and the Nash Ramblers, but moves the listener abruptly from instrumentalists as diverse as Steve Fishell, John Ware, and Sam Bush, and vocalists as different as Rodney Crowell, Ricky Skaggs and Barry Tashian. In this sense, she implies, the box is a record of her bands’ personnel changes.
It’s very much in Emmylou’s interest, of course, to support Spyboy even at the expense of seemingly comparable projects. But she makes a good point. One advantage of this retrospective is its ensemble coherence. Queried about the precedent of working for the first time with black musicians (which began with 1995’s Wrecking Ball), she muses that it’s a “progression” — that when Lanois found bassist Johnson and drummer Blade for her, she also “a fantastic singer” in Johnson and “a great musician…of the New Orleans/Louisiana school” in Blade, who plays “maybe the best shuffle I’ve ever sung behind.” As for Miller, her voice proclaims victory when she says, “But I found Buddy Miller!”
It is worth taking a moment to situate Emmylou in her own musical traditions. She emerged in the early 1970s from the folk-rock and country-rock music pioneered by Gram Parsons, with whom she toured and recorded for a couple years until Parsons’ death in September 1973. As a solo artist, her reputation was established in performance and on recordings from 1975 to 1987 with her critically acclaimed electric Hot Band, its most prominent musicians over the years including Crowell (on acoustic guitar and supporting vocals) and Skaggs (fiddle and mandolin), as well as Hank DeVito, Emory Gordy Jr., Brian Ahern, Glen D. Hardin, Frank Reckerd, Barry Tashian, Albert Lee and John Ware. “The high standard set by the Hot Band was set by the musicians themselves, each musician that came into it,” Harris says. “Without me saying a word, you could feel a sense of responsibility and a desire to stretch.”
The Harris oeuvre built from her first solo outing, Pieces Of The Sky, from which she immediately had a #1 hit in a remake of the Louvin Brothers’ “If I Could Only Win Your Love”, followed by a succession of albums appealing equally to pop, rock, country and folk audiences. Among Emmylou’s singles, the biggest country hits have been “Together Again”, “Sweet Dreams”, “You Never Can Tell”, “To Daddy” and “In My Dreams”. Her 1988 duet with Earl Thomas Conley, “We Believe In Happy Endings”, went number one, and five of her singles have topped the Billboard country chart, with another fifteen in the Top Ten.
Industry awards, official acknowledgments of Emmylou’s achievements, kept pace with the music. Blue Kentucky Girl (1979) won her first Grammy, for Best Female Country Performance, and the following year, her acoustic bluegrass album, Roses In The Snow, which record label doom-and-gloomsters predicted would destroy her career, instead earned her the Country Music Association award as Best Female Vocalist. The Ballad Of Sally Rose, a quasi-autobiographical concept album released in 1984, received a Grammy nomination for Female Country Vocalist and an Academy of Country Music award in same category. Eight of Emmylou’s albums have gone gold (sales of more than 500,000). Trio, with Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt, went multiplatinum, with sales to date approaching twelve million.
From 1987 to 1995, Harris performed with an equally celebrated acoustic group, the Nash Ramblers, including fiddle player and virtuoso mandolinist Sam Bush (formerly of the New Grass Revival); dobro player Al Perkins (a onetime member of the Flying Burrito Brothers and of Stephen Stills’ Manassas); acoustic guitarist Randy Stewart (now performing on his own under the name Jon Randall); the late, legendary Roy Huskey Jr. on upright bass; and Larry Atamanuik, formerly of Seatrain, on drums.
Whether it’s the Hot Band, the Ramblers or Spyboy, Harris always speaks in warmest appreciation of her musicians, each of whom puts a unique “thumbprint” on the music and has “challenged and inspired” her and kept her music fresh, she says. As songwriter/musician Don Johnson says, “Emmylou doesn’t act like a star backed up by a band. She thinks of herself as a fellow musician.”
Crucial to Harris’s career was the musical mentorship of Parsons, a major shaping force in post-1970s country music. Harris has said, “Singing with Gram was the ultimate singing experience for me. As a singer and a harmony singer, he taught me so much….I really came to country music through Gram Parsons. That, to me, was like the earth is hit by a meteor — it changes the face of the earth forever. It changed the way I heard music, the way I perceived it and, ultimately, the way I performed it.”
Through scores of interviews, Harris continually acknowledges Parsons’ guiding influence, usually in images — e.g. the meteor — expressing the moment when Gram’s lessons took, when “the penny dropped,” when “B.C.” became “A.D,” when she “got it.” True, Harris attended “Bluegrass School” in the living room of John and Faissou Starling in the Washington, D.C., area in her twenties, and she lists influences from Monroe and Ralph Stanley to the Louvin and Everly Brothers to George Jones, Edith Piaf, Dolly Parton, Tammy Wynette, Joan Baez, Tom Rush — and, if a statement by Linda Ronstadt is to be believed, even Maria Callas.
But Gram was the master alchemist, and Emmylou’s own vocal launch is available for all to hear in their duets on Gram Parsons (1972) and Grievous Angel (1973), still available on a double CD. To this day, Harris is eager to acknowledge Parsons as her Prometheus. “Singing twelve hours a day” with him on a tour bus in the early 1970s taught her “how to reach inward and not be afraid to pull out my deepest feelings.” That he taught her to sing country is self-evident to any listener who troubles to seek out Emmylou’s very first recording, the folkish, pre-Gram Parsons Gliding Bird (1969), in which the voice is unmistakably Emmylou’s but the “bird” barely fledged.
Ironic as it is that Harris should now be considered “alternative” country, her lasting musical designation has been that of New Traditionalist. She herself has said, “What I’ve always tried to do is blend the real hot electric country music with the real traditional mandolins and fiddles that fill in that mountain and bluegrass side….I include folk music and different kinds of ethnic music: bluegrass, mountain, even Cajun and Celtic, because that’s where country music comes from.”
Yet Harris works the territory of those who became legends in American country music. Her “Lonely Street” (from 1988’s Bluebird) reinterprets Kitty Wells’ own version, but in so doing pays tribute to it, and to versions by Patsy Cline and Tammy Wynette; likewise the Carter Family’s “Hello Stranger” and Jimmie Rodgers’ “Miss The Mississippi”. Country music is so much the eclectic Emmylou’s center that instead of saying that she ventures into rock or pop, she is more apt to say that a designated rocker — say, Bruce Springsteen — is really a country songwriter. Thus, that when she records a Springsteen song (she did “Mansion On The Hill” on At The Ryman), she is properly bringing it into the musical genre where it belongs.
Casting herself as “an interpreter” much more than a songwriter, Emmylou’s song selection has forged a certain complex identity over her three-decade career, starting with Southern culture as a sine qua non of the genre. Emmylou Harris was born in Birmingham, Alabama, on April 12, 1947, and both disclaims and claims a Southern identity. “I wasn’t raised on a farm in Tennessee, you know, one of twelve children,” she has said. “I wasn’t raised in the Appalachians or anything. My father was in the Marines, and we traveled around a lot. I always felt I was raised in a rootless sort of way….I have no roots anywhere.” Yet Harris has also claimed such roots: “It was really Gram [Parsons] who brought me home….I don’t know if it’s because I’m originally from the South, and just lately found my roots, or what it is.”
The fact is, country music artists must, by definition, claim a Southern heritage, if not by birth then by affinity. Harris, who only moved to Nashville from L.A. in the early 1980s, is careful not to try to “pass” as a daughter of the hills and hollers, fabricating a rural identity of the kind shared by Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton. But, as in the quasi-autobiographical The Ballad Of Sally Rose, she can dwell in a liminal South, rootless yet brought “home” musically by her mentor, claiming her birthright even as she honestly disclaims the Southern rural upbringing.
A complex identity extends to the most frequently used adjective for Emmylou’s voice and persona — angel — alliterating with her birth state, so that “Alabama Angel” has been the recurrent headline in record and concert reviews. One critic cites “an ethereal delicacy of tone,” while another calls her the “spiritual godmother of country’s new-traditional movement.” Still another: “If angels elected a singer on earth, they’d choose Emmylou Harris, the Alabama Angel.”
The spirituality of Emmylou’s music and persona is self-evidently at issue here. Harris has said, for instance, “Something of my own, personal, spiritual path is very connected with music,” and acknowledges that Cowgirl’s Prayer is thematically, “for lack of a better word, [about] spiritual issues.” Critics evoke the dark ethereality of hauntedness as one reads of her voice as “delicate [but not] fragile…clear, reedy…soaring and mournful” with a “haunting clarity…hauntingly pure vocal delivery.”
To be sure, Harris has never spoken of herself as an angel. Critics and reviewers confer the title referring both to vocal quality and to her ethereal beauty. Emmylou’s musical “angel” statement is to be found solely in her gospel album, Angel Band. Yet the angel image arguably serves Emmylou well in context of the angelic traits in popular speech, literature, and art: purity, innocence, radiance, magnanimity, benevolence. The angel image is surely powerful because one does not affront an angel. One keeps a reverential distance.
In terms of a very tough music business in which women have been readily dismissed as mere “chick singers,” the angel image is extremely powerful. It enables a rather shy female country singer to exert force in a world of aggressive, egoistic musicians, producers, label executives, handlers of every stripe. Emmylou’s personality is not in-your-face aggressive, like Tanya Tucker’s or Lorrie Morgan’s, or genially garrulous, like Dolly’s. Harris is reticent and guarded.
One way to negotiate the business, of course, is to surround oneself with macho toughs (and Emmylou’s longtime manager, Phil Kaufman, is a self-styled “road mangler deluxe,” while her longtime producer and former husband, Brian Ahern, has been described as “a bear”). Such male protectors can serve as door guards, gatekeepers, bouncers. But the pure spirit of the angel has great power too. It keeps others in check and makes them wish to do the bidding of the angel. It is an identity of strategic power and may be relevant to critics’ observations that this is a star in control of her band.
Add the cowgirl, and the Harris persona breaks loose, born to ride and roam. Emmylou’s longtime onstage Western wear and recordings of “Ain’t Living Long”, “Tulsa Queen”, “Pancho and Lefty” (recorded before Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard did so) and other Western songs, including “Cimarron” and “Even Cowgirls Get The Blues” signals her embrace of the West of unbounded freedom. This “cowgirl” is as free as the wild rose she adopts as her personal symbol (in case anybody has not seen the Gibson J-200 guitar inlaid with a big red rose surely visible from the upper balcony at any Harris concert).
But this cowgirl is, as Rodney Crowell wrote, the “special…gypsy kind,” a member of a wandering race that mirrors the mobility of an artist in a musical tradition in which touring — being “on the road” — is a way of life and eclectic song selection a personal mandate.
The gypsy, then, is that rootless part of Emmylou’s identity, perpetually on the move, on the road. Her catalogue brims with “gypsy” songs as she enacts the mobility of American culture in songs such as “Restless”, “Wheels”, “Born To Run”, “Long May You Run”, “I’m Movin’ On”, “Rollin’ And Ramblin'”, and Steve Earle’s “Guitar Town”, in which the singer hears her name called from a distance and follows the voice down a “lost highway” (reminiscent of Hank Williams, himself the “Ramblin’ Man” of country music). Harris speaks of her gypsy tendencies this way: “I guess I’m one of these people that whenever adversity hits, I move.”
But the gypsy identity celebrates movin’ on in positive terms. The gypsy is no fugitive but a rover. The term carries overtones of music, as in gypsy violins. It suggests a caravan, like a band and roadies, so that the gypsy is apart but not alone, never isolated or homeless. On-the-move is the style of life of the gypsy, who can never be tamed or regimented by norms of humdrum life.
But yet another identity compounds — and confounds — these others. “If Harris has a dominant musical persona,” said the London Telegraph in 1990, “it is as a mourner stricken but brave in her sorrow.” As a high schooler, Harris, who reportedly wrote to her idol, Pete Seeger, to ask whether she could legitimately sing folk songs since she had not suffered much in life, soon had that credential too. Harris has said of Gram Parsons’s untimely, sudden death, “I didn’t know how to mourn except to just throw myself back into that music….My way of grieving was to continue that music.”
Emmylou’s fans can connect the dots of a mourner’s constellation beginning with “Boulder To Birmingham”, in which the sustained, searing string cry opens for the voice of quiet pain that speaks its rejection of songs of love and courtship. Aboard an airplane, the singer refuses flirtation, voicing the cruel irony that in death, the beloved will be “sanctified”, while her life’s lot will be to endure an aching survival. Like a medieval pilgrim, this survivor vows she would walk from Boulder to Birmingham “just to see [his] face,” but the secular twentieth century suggests the futility of wishing for this miracle.
Emmylou’s songs of mourning continue from Birmingham to the Mississippi in the tragic inflection that marks the Robbie Robertson ballad “Evangeline” (from her 1981 album of the same name). She sings “Evangeline” from the outlook of a woman driven mad when, on a Mississippi River embankment, she watches her riverboat-gambler lover drown in a storm that capsizes the boat while she looks on, helpless. This ballad metaphorically recapitulates the sudden, cataclysmic death of the beloved that leaves her stranded, a reluctant survivor. The grief-stricken mourner emerges yet again in her matte-black version of “Lonely Street”.
And it recurs in “A River For Him”, which she wrote and recorded on the Bluebird album. “A River For Him” is a song of lament, grief, loss. Listeners are aware that this singer bears a constant, incalculable, irremediable pain from which there is no amelioration, no exit. She is crying perpetually for him, on his behalf, not narcissistically for herself. But there will be no route through this mourning, only a certain containment of pain and the desensitizing of her feelings of incalculable loss and loneliness.
But not personal renewal. Never renewal. Retrospectively, the singer is a kind of spectator of disaster, of burned bridges and an unspeakable site of ruin. The mourner emerges yet again in “Prayer In Open D”, whose lyrics profile a bone-weary woman wracked by guilt and pain, and the song carries forward the imagery of rivers and bridges from “A River For Him”. “Prayer in Open D” puns on rock figures — the Christian Rock of Ages, rock ‘n’ roll, the Rolling Stones, and on herself as a rolling stone gathering no moss but leaving a swath of destruction and “damage” behind. “Prayer” does carry a provisional, spiritual hope at the end when we hear that a highway rises in her dreams, and that the singer hopes one day it might carry her beyond death to the “other side.” Yet over all, the prayer is an act doubly of confession and grief. Sung in a minor key, it continues the tradition of mourning.
The South is often — to the point of cliche — described as that part of America bearing the weight of tragic history. Emmylou’s autobiographic musical identity fits this pattern in the presentation of self as perpetually grieving widow, the in-flight passenger who cannot escape memory, the Evangeline who has watched her beloved drown, the prayerful woman confessing responsibility for untold human damage.
Even stardom is no guarantee of fulfillment on that road, not even for this country music Gypsy Rose. Emmylou’s “Sweetheart Of The Rodeo” (co-written with Paul Kennerley, her third husband), on the Sally Rose album, says that the years and miles of touring bring a sorrowful wind ringing in her ears. Veteran of a thousand appearances nationwide, she has stood on the stages where the whole world could see her “shine.” Fans come down like spring runoff to her concerts, for she’s their “sweetheart of the rodeo” (the term an echo of the Byrds album of the same name) and, in a neat turn of phrase, she “rides the radio” too, clearly a star on the circuit.
Why, then, is there no “compensation” for her now? In large part because a deep-lodged, insurmountable pain lingers from her past (here, again, the voice of the ever-grieving mourner). But also because she cannot outlive the persona of the Sweetheart, the very term one of youth — fresh innocence, sweet sixteen, proms, etc. It is the Sweetheart whom the fans come to see and hear year after year. Their Sweetheart. She is their creature; they made her the public figure she is. In effect, the Sweetheart is under perpetual contract to these fans.
The voice we hear in “Sweetheart Of The Rodeo”, however, is no prom-teen sweetheart. Harris sings her with a rich tonal darkness, every phrase bearing the weight of maturity, this voice itself too well muscled to fit the public persona in which this performer is trapped. This woman simply knows too much, has too much experience to be anybody’s sweetheart ever again. Thus she’s caught in a time warp of her fans’ making. But the conflict between the person and the persona stages the very brilliance of the song — and the disclosure of the pitfalls of life as a country star on the road. The Sweetheart is caught in the very identity that has brought her such success. She is trapped, seemingly forever, “out on some road that just won’t end.” She may be “born to run,” but ultimately there’s nowhere to run to.
Yet backroads and detours on that media road from artist to audience are increasingly important in these years when mainstream country radio posts a big KEEP OUT sign to interesting new voices and legends alike. (Serious country music fans interested in current conditions of the industry should check out Laurence Leamer’s Three Chords And The Truth , which maps today’s tough country music terrain even as it shows Emmylou Harris as hero.)
Let’s situate all this in the moment of the release of Spyboy, bearing in mind that as for song selection, some fans’ faves aren’t here because, as Harris explains, the Wrecking Ball tour required a catalogue search for the songs best suited to this band (“What songs will create a string of pearls…sonically, lyrically, philosophically” and also “kick a bit?”). She concedes that legal restraints played some part in song selection on Spyboy but insists that a “creative door” opened from necessity and led to the rediscovery of certain gems, notably “Tulsa Queen”.
In all this talk about studio v. live performance, about virgin live v. veteran live, about ensemble consistency, what about Emmylou’s own sound? And what concept underlies Spyboy? Back in 1990, Harris said, “In a very real sense, a performer is naked onstage….If an artist doesn’t allow the audience to see the essential truth, then it’s Las Vegas time.” Well, folks, Spyboy is not the Luxor or Circus Circus, and Emmylou is still standing naked on that stage, this time with a new level of fearsome spirituality. As always, we must have “Wheels” because we’re “Born To Run” even if we “Ain’t Living Long”, baby.
But the voice of the gritty good-time mama sings life’s ravages on Spyboy. Redemption and nihilism are almost compatriots. The voice indeed “kicks a bit” but broaches a guilt-ridden agnostic’s search for spiritual salvation. Faith comes hard, the “Deeper Well” is the only one worth dipping in, and the questions (“Where Will I Be?”) have no pat answers, not a one.
Yes, at moments Emmylou shows her customary, maddening disregard for lyric enunciation and moves, it seems, into vocalization that leaves listeners behind struggling to make out the words. (Listeners can feel like they’re in a city without street signs; either you belong there and don’t need the signs, or else you’re an outsider and shouldn’t be there anyhow). Musically, Harris remains a Contra, this so-called “Alabama Angel,” working the backbeat, singing interpretively against the very message of the lyrics, this time as a mature woman deploying all her vocal power, yet verging on the bereft while “Calling My Children Home”. All admirers of Emmylou’s music, of her characteristic bold moves and unflinching commitment to reveal every shade and nuance of a song, are called back “home” again in Spyboy.
Cecelia Tichi is William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of English and Director of American and Southern Studies at Vanderbilt University. She is the author of High Lonesome: The American Culture Of Country Music (University of North Carolina Press, 1994) and the editor of Reading Country Music: Steel Guitars, Opry Stars, And Honky-Tonk Bars (Duke University Press, 1998).