Red Dirt Girl, Silver-Haired Siren

1. “One measures a circle, beginning anywhere”—the remark from the infamous American pseudoscientist Charles Fort comes to mind on trying to formulate some sort of narrative entrée to the career of Emmylou Harris, who will play the Pageant this Thursday, October 16. In a way, that’s apt. If she did not quite begin recording fully formed and perfect, like some musical Athena sprung mature and puissant from the brow of Zeus, then Harris, at a minimum, has performed for so long and so well, with such refinement and grace, that hooks start circling one another, dizzily, in the head of any hack writer straining for just such entrée.

In the purity of her intent, in the power of her execution, and in the perdurability of her work, in short, Harris almost perforce defies hooks.

2. Its honesty notwithstanding, that would make a parlous short endorsement of someone as long on talent as Harris. Hence, regroup, retrench, repeat: Harris and her band, Spyboy, will hit the Lou later this week, and the $25 price of a ticket, frankly, borders on a bargain—presuming the 8 p.m. show hasn’t sold out by the time this encomium uploads. So canny readers should say a prayer—and quick quick quick call the Pageant’s box office or Ticketmaster.

3. Although the preceding might please Joe Edwards, the Pageant’s proud papa, it otherwise fundamentally falls short regarding the artistry of Harris. Vis-à-vis the silver-haired siren from Birmingham, finally if fretfully, let’s therefore play geometer: pick a point on the circle of her career and measure from there.

September makes as workable a starting place as any other. As readers of Playback St. Louis and other cognoscenti can attest, last month saw the release of Harris’s latest CD, Stumble Into Grace (a review of which appears in the magazine’s October issue and lurks elsewhere on this Web site). That disc ably succeeds her 2000 debut on Warner’s Nonesuch Records label, Red Dirt Girl, which garnered a Grammy for “Best Contemporary Folk Album” and other huzzahs. As on Red Dirt Girl, Harris (after roughly a quarter-century spent mostly singing others’ songs) either wrote or co-wrote all of the 11 tracks on Stumble Into Grace. Ranging from deliciously frisky love songs like “Jupiter Rising” to social critiques like “Time in Babylon” and featuring vocal cameos from musicians like Jane Siberry and Kate and Anna McGarrigle, the new disc may well match its predecessor in accolades.

4. That, too, would be apt: Harris has long earned accolades. “In many ways, she is the consummate country artist,” remarks Alanna Nash of Harris in Behind Closed Doors from 1988, “as adept with a plaintive country ballad as she is with hard-muscle rock ’n’ roll, displaying a distinctive tonality and gift for emotional phrasing with both.” In Modern Twang, his 1999 guide to all things alt-country, David Goodman echoes and amplifies that statement: “It is impossible to overemphasize the contributions made by Emmylou Harris to the development of alternative country.”

Indeed, from a certain perspective, Harris’s musical origins prefigured a good deal of what nowadays falls under that rubric. In their monolithic 1993 history of women in country music, Finding Her Voice, Mary A. Bufwack and Robert K. Oermann observe of her:

She wasn’t a coal miner’s daughter, a sharecropper’s wife, an Appalachian waif, or a cotton mill girl. She was a middle-class music enthusiast who found purpose and meaning in the classic country sounds.

Born in Birmingham (as noted) in 1947, Harris had the predictably peripatetic upbringing of a child whose father served as an officer with the U.S.M.C. Besides Alabama, she and her family also lived in North Carolina and Virginia, and as a young adult, she continued that tendency to itinerancy by heading to New York in 1967. There, on the Jubilee Records label, she released Gliding Bird, a folk album now all but forgotten, in 1969. A year later, she, her first husband, and their daughter decamped to Nashville.

Life in Music City, unfortunately, proved hard for Harris. She and her spouse divorced, and instead of enjoying some sort of storybook turn of events—“struggling young songbird draws music bigwig’s attention, fast tops the charts”—she perforce turned to waiting tables to support herself and her child. Fame and media coverage? Scarcely. Try food stamps and Medicaid.

Eventually, around Christmas 1970, Harris let disillusionment carry her back to her parents, who were by that time living in the Washington, D.C., area. Now as then, for one reason or another, fledglings must sometimes return to the nest, and from personal experience, such a return can sting unmercifully. One can only imagine the feelings of inadequacy, of shame, of failure, with which Harris, at that point, must have been wrestling.

Ironically, of course, her relocation to D.C. changed everything.

5. In and around D.C., you see, Harris started singing in various venues, including a Georgetown club called Clyde’s. At Clyde’s, she met Chris Hillman and the other Flying Burrito Brothers, and Hillman thereafter praised her to the man who came closest to being her musical Zeus, his former bandmate in both the Flying Burrito Brothers and the Byrds, Gram Parsons. In Finding Her Voice, Bufwack and Oermann relate:

Parsons came to see Emmy and was properly smitten. A year later he sent her a plane ticket to L.A. to come sing on his debut solo album GP.

Almost immediately, tragedy ensued. Even before the release of Grievous Angel—his second album, on which Harris also performed—Parsons died of drug toxicity on September 19, 1973, in California’s Joshua Tree Inn.

Befitting the daughter of a U.S. Marine, Harris soldiered bravely onward, releasing her first solo country effort, Pieces of the Sky. Of that ten-song 1975 Reprise LP, Laurence Leamer, in his often unctuous Three Chords and the Truth from 1997, rightly observes:

It was country music surely, but it was country music that they could play in a jukebox in an east Texas honky-tonk and in a dorm room at Harvard, dance to in Haight-Ashbury and Austin, New York and Memphis.

On Pieces of the Sky, Harris not only adroitly covered both Merle Haggard (“Bottle Let Me Down”) and Dolly Parton (“Coat of Many Colors”) but also cracked the top ten with her rendition of the Louvin Brothers’ “If I Could Only Win Your Love.” Moreover, in a co-write with Bill Danoff that became a standard for her, she elegized Parsons in the aching “Boulder to Birmingham”: “I would rock my soul in the bosom of Abraham/I would hold my life in his saving grace./I would walk all the way from Boulder to Birmingham/If I thought I could see, I could see your face.”

“I was surprised to find an audience for my music,” Bufwack and Oermann report Harris as musing, “because I thought it was too ‘precious’ or perhaps too narrow for the masses.…” Happily, in hindsight, she has excelled far, far more as a performer than as a prognosticator. Each year for many years after Pieces of the Sky, she recorded releases memorable in one way or another: Elite Hotel, Luxury Liner, Quarter Moon in a Ten Cent Town, Blue Kentucky Girl, Roses in the Snow. She landed multiple Grammy Awards and fostered talents like Rodney Crowell and Ricky Skaggs. She was named the Country Music Association’s “Female Vocalist of the Year” in 1980. She later crafted even more acclaimed releases like The Ballad of Sally Rose and (with Parton and Linda Ronstadt) Trio.

Among those later releases, incidentally, the all-time favorite here at the Sports Desk appeared in 1995: Wrecking Ball. Produced by Daniel Lanois and mixed by Malcolm Burn (who himself subsequently produced both Red Dirt Girl and Stumble Into Grace), it features a dozen songs written by everyone from Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix to Steve Earle, Lucinda Williams, and (still then mostly unknown) Gillian Welch. It also includes Harris’s dreamy rendition of the title cut (penned by Neil Young) and closes with “Waltz Across Texas Tonight,” a Crowell-Harris co-write of breathtaking majesty. Wrecking Ball, in short, ranks as a musical tour de force that no true lover of country music should lack.

6. End the digression. End the capsule biography as well—the hour grows late, the brain grows hazy, and the deadline grows near. Let’s go for a close.

Even before the appearance of Stumble Into Grace, Harris was touring rigorously. In September, for instance, she opened several shows for Young; the day before her St. Louis appearance, moreover, her schedule will land her in Iowa City, with Cincinnati slotted for the day after. As ever, supporting Harris on the tour is her longtime band, Spyboy: percussionist Brady Blade, bassist Daryl Johnson, and guitarist Buddy Miller, who, as a “special guest,” will open the show at the Pageant this Thursday.

That show should qualify as a bona fide event, as one of the year’s most memorable performances. How could it not, after all? It’s Emmylou Harris.

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply