Review: Emmylou Harris – Songbird – Rare Tracks & Forgotten Gems [Rhino/Warners, 4Cd +1DVD 2007]
When people talk of Emmylou Harris it’s always about her voice and her ability to instil a sense of inviolable purity or cover each song with pain. And only a mad, a deaf or a deaf mad could deny such qualities to Emmylou’s angel voice and to her clear phrasing.
I don’t want to question her soft soprano voice, which can express consolation and regret in the same word as nobody else’s can and, most of all, harmonize like no other voice in the world. However, should I say only one reason why Emmylou’s career has been uniquely unforgettable – and why it’s still very interesting even today – I wouldn’t think about her beautiful voice. Instead, I would rather cite her underestimated role of guardian of traditions. Please note, however, that “guardian” doesn’t mean watchdog but it means “keeper” of a style so close to the core of the tradition to be in love with it and be able to carry it through different eras.
What Bruce Springsteen did for rock’n’roll –setting up a continuity between juke-box sound, golden-age r’n’r, New York’s punk and storytelling in the 1960s – Emmylou Harris did it for the country music. Emmylou Harris’ albums, even the most ordinary and less successful ones, either dedicated to rockabilly or bluegrass, rock’n’roll or hard pure folk, they have always shown that a connection between country and its development was possible, if not necessary.
She taught us that self-reinvention in any circumstance and at any time by following new stimulus and suggestions, didn’t mean betraying one’s roots, inheritance and education. The adolescent who dreamt about becoming a folk singer in the 1960s, and wrote letters to Pete Seeger asking whether a happy peaceful girl could sing of pains and troubles (he answered she shouldn’t have worried: “my dear, difficult moments are closer than you can imagine”) has become one of the most important elegant artists of the last three decades.
True, such story was already told in another retrospective box (the triple Portraits ), but while that one merely summed up a 20-something albums’ career, this one only suggests a path, an approach among different ones resulting in a more meaningful, effective and revelatory album, much more direct and lively than the previous one. The only disappointment concerns the content of the DVD, featuring 9 not always interesting videos (the old 80s-fashioned Mr Sandman and I Don’t Have To Crawl could have been missed), just to say that even Rhino couldn’t win them all.
As for music, well we can smack our lips. Fans of the roots genre would probably find it very interesting: an American novel starting from an alternative unedited Clocks for piano and guitar (it’s Gliding Bird’s solo debut in 1969), going through 78 different songs to reach the country aristocracy of recent duets with Mark Knopfler (Love And Happiness), Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt (When We’re Gone, Long Gone), Randy Scruggs and Iris Dement (the timeless Wildwood Flower).
Among them, thirteen exclusive unedited tracks are only the tip of an iceberg to be disclosed: the mentioned Clocks, other collaborations with Parton and Ronstadt (Psalms Of Victory, Soft And Tenderly), a strong reinterpretation of the Guy Clark of Immigrant Eyes, the country of First In Line and the old-fashioned honky-tonk of Highway Of Heartache, the tender and sorry Townes Van Zandt of Snowin’ On Raton (Richie Bennett plays the guitar and Sam Bush the mandolin), a very rootsy version of the ghostly Waltz Across Texas Tonight (written in collaboration with Rodney Crowell) that in 1995 it closed the masterpiece Wrecking Ball and much more.
Impressive, because already known, the set of collaborations that, coming out from old Emmylou’s albums, from some someone else’s old records and different tributes, include: Guy Clark (I Don’t Love You Much Do I), Steve Earle (I Remember You), Kate and Anna McGarrigle (Golden Ring), Nitty Gritty Dirt Band (Mary Danced With Soldiers), Mary Black (Sonny), Patty Griffin (Beyond The Blue), George Jones (Here We Are), Willie Nelson (One Paper Kid), Waylon Jennings (Spanish Johnny).
Gram Parsons’s songs hold an important position. A part from Wheels in cooperation with Seldom Scene, they all come from the tribute album Return Of The Grievous Angel (’99): the lovely versions of Sin City (with Beck) and Juanita (with Sheryl Crow), as well as that She the Pretenders soaked with eroticism and soul torment – on my opinion, one of the best covers ever. Boulder To Birmingham (from Pieces Of The Sky, ’75) is missing but perhaps it’s better in this way since in this song Emmylou confessed all her pain and regret after Parsons’ death, who was her irreplaceable Pygmalion and an unforgettable lover before he died in the desert for overdose (1973). Listening to her today is still very racking.
As I said, Songbird – Rare Tracks & Forgotten Gems is not only made up of confessions. Its revelations are at the end of a non-linear path where diversions are as interesting as the main route. Among such diversions, there’s Gram Parsons too. Harris’ albums released after his death are full of an oppressive sense of loss and mourning. The trouble in their affair gave her that voice Emmylou was afraid not to have as se wrote in an old letter to Pete Seeger.
The tragic angel’s death and the pain cage where she was imprisoned taught her how to make this voice unique; how to discover again the lost authenticity of the genre right when the country was selling itself away in pop charts; how to dress the genre up with modernity and bring it back to the charts right when the Nashville Ryman Auditorium was about to be pulled down.
Songbird – Rare Tracks & Forgotten Gems is a piece of Emmylou Harris’ life: spiritual and sensual, angelic and restless. I don’t know whether she considers herself a lucky woman. We had the chance to listen to her singing about our losses, broken hearts and rebirths, so we definitely are.
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