My Kind of Country

Country music from a fan's point of view since 2008

Album Review: Emmylou Harris – ‘Pieces Of The Sky’

Emmylou Harris’s debut for Reprise was an artistic masterpiece which stands up well today. Recorded in LA with Canadian producer Brian Ahern, who Emmylou was to marry a few years later, it brought in the influences of the California country-rock scene in which Emmylou had been immersed during her time with Gram Parsons, fusing them with some very traditional music. The musicians included Herb Pedersen (later a member of the Desert Rose Band) as the principal harmony singer, the Eagles’ Bernie Leadon playing a variety of instruments, soon-to-be Hot Band members James Burton and Glen D Hardin, and Fayssoux Starling, wife of John Starling of the bluegrass group The Seldom Scene as the main female harmony voice. Emmylou herself played acoustic guitar on a number of tracks.

Her first country single was the beautiful lost love ballad ‘Too Far Gone’. Written by Billy Sherrill and given a delicate string arrangement reminiscent of his work with Tammy Wynette (who had also recorded the song), it failed to make any inroads for Emmylou despite an intense yet understated performance imbued with anguish. It was re-released in 1978 to promote the compilation Profile, and then reached #13.

Gram Parsons had introduced Emmylou to the music and perfect harmonies of the Louvin Brothers, and a sparkling reading of their ‘If I Could Only Win Your Love’ was her first big hit, peaking at #4 on Billboard. Pedersen plays banjo here as well as supplying perfect harmonies, making this a true classic recording which stands up to the original.

Emmylou herself wrote just one song, the exquisitely beautiful ‘Boulder To Birmingham’, reflecting on her grief for the death of Gram Parsons. With echoes of gospel in the lyrics and folk in the melody (supplied by co-writer Bill Danoff) and arrangement, Emmylou provides a worthy tribute to her mentor which exudes sorrow. Perhaps in another tribute to their work together, she also covered the Everly Brothers’ ‘Sleepless Nights’ (a Felice and Boudleaux Bryant song most recently revived by Patty Loveless), which she had previously cut with Gram for their second album together, Grievous Angel, but which had been omitted from the final version.

It was still common practice in the 1970s for artists to cover recent hits. Emmylou picked Dolly Parton’s autobiographical ‘Coat Of Many Colors’ (a hit for her in 1971), and this tenderly sung version with its mainly acoustic backing and the angelic harmonies of Fayssoux Starling, is convincing even though her own background was far from the rural poverty which inspired the song. She also sounds beautiful if mournful on the Beatles’ ‘For No One’.

It wasn’t all delicate ballads. The good-tempered mid-tempo wailed drinking song ‘Bluebird Wine’ which opens the album is actually my least favorite track vocally, but gets things off to a sparkling start instrumentally. It is notable as the first ever cut for the then-unknown Rodney Crowell, who Emmylou was soon to ask to join the Hot Band. There are committed honky tonk numbers in a spunky cover of Merle Haggard’s broken hearted ‘Bottle Let Me Down’ with Leadon and Pedersen singing backing, although this doesn’t quite match up to the original. Emmylou also sang the definitive version of Shel Silverstein’s sympathetic (even triumphant) portrait of a faded honky tonk angel he calls the ‘Queen Of The Silver Dollar’ (previously recorded by Dr Hook and a hit for Dave & Sugar in 1976). Linda Ronstadt and Herb Pedersen sang harmony on Emmylou’s version.

Another future Hot Band Member, Ricky Skaggs, guests on fiddle on ‘Queen Of the Silver Dollar’, and fiddle and viola on ‘Before Believing’, a pretty acoustic ballad with a folky feel, written by Danny Flowers. Emmylou’s boyfriend at the time, Tom Guidera, plays bass on these two tracks. The latter provides the album title:

How would you feel if the world was falling apart all around you
Pieces of the sky falling on your neighbor’s yard but not on you

The album sold well, reaching #7 on the country albums chart, and was eventually certified hold. It has been rereleased on CD, both with the original track listing and in 2004 with two additional songs, ‘Hank And Lefty (Raised My Country Soul)’, which had been a minor hit for the African-American country singer Stoney Edwards a few years earlier, and ‘California Cottonfields’ (a Haggard album cut written by Dallas Frazier and Earl Montgomery)). Both are fine songs well performed by Emmylou, and it is well worth seeking out this version for those songs (or downloading them individually if you already have the album).

Grade: A

Buy it at amazon.

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6 responses to “Album Review: Emmylou Harris – ‘Pieces Of The Sky’

  1. Ken Johnson April 4, 2011 at 12:34 pm

    An exceptionally fine album with a most unflattering cover photo. Why the almost colorless, dimly lit and expressionless photo of Emmylou was chosen for the cover of her debut LP is a mystery to me. She was a cute young woman the time but this picture does not convey any of her better physical qualities. My first intro to Emmylou was via this photo and I was amazed when I saw an attractive, vibrant young woman on TV a few months later. Quite the opposite of the image I had of her from the drab photo.

    Hope: Perhaps you are too young to remember but former Buck Owens Buckaroo band member Doyle Holly charted his excellent version of “Queen Of The Silver Dollar” in 1973. Though his Barnaby single peaked at #29 it received rather extensive country radio airplay. Many feel that it was THE definitive take on that tune.

    Likewise “California Cotton Fields” charted at #45 in late 1969 for Dallas Frazier on RCA Victor almost two years before Haggard’s album track was released.

  2. Leeann Ward April 5, 2011 at 12:34 pm

    This is a fine album. I do like “Bluebird Wine.” Vince Gill references it in “Some Things Never Get Old”, from his box set, where he has Emmylou singing exquisite backup vocals. He tells a story of how when he first heard that song, he thought it was Dolly Parton with a different name. He was so sure of it that he convinced his friends as well. I can hear why he thought that, because her early work sounded somewhat similar to a young Parton.

    • Razor X April 5, 2011 at 12:38 pm

      I thought Emmylou did a very fine job on “Coat of Many Colors.” It’s such a highly personal song that it’s difficult for anybody other than Dolly to sing it and sound convincing, but Emmylou handles it quite well. I like the entire album quite a lot.

      • J.R. Journey April 5, 2011 at 8:40 pm

        I think Emmylou offered a fine performance of ‘Coat of Many Colors’, and her take on ‘To Daddy’ surpasses even Dolly’s in my opinion.

        ‘Boulder To Birmingham’ is my favorite from this album, but I like ‘Queen of the Silver Dollar’ a lot too. Nothing not to like here.

  3. Jonathan April 6, 2011 at 1:33 pm

    I agree with J.R. I’ve only listened to the first few tracks on the album (I downloaded it last night after O.H’s rave review) and besides “If I Could Only Win Your Love,” the one track that really grabbed me was “Boulder.”

    When listening to “Bluebird Wine” I could see where Vince Gill was coming from when he thought it was Dolly. The similarities were quite striking. I don’t know if I would’ve made the same connection on my own, but I’m glad Leeann shared that story.

    I’m really enjoying getting better aquatinted with Emmylou’s early music. I’ve always known (and heard) how great she is, but I never really gave her enough energy until now. I was definitely missing out!

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