Emmylou Harris’ fourth album for Warner Brothers contains more traditional and straightforward country fare than before. This is partially because, after being involved in the mixing of Quarter Moon In a Ten Cent Town, she felt it was too slick-sounding. But the more traditional arrangements were mostly created as a response to the outcry that the healthy mixing of pop and rock hits on past albums were the primary reason for their success. Shucking Tin Pan Alley for more Printer’s Alley, the set includes songs by country stalwarts Dallas Frazier, The Louvin Brothers, Willie Nelson, and others. It’s biggest flaw – and only downfall – is in the lack of tempo, as too many of the tracks begin to bleed together with their like-minded and plodding melodies. Blue Kentucky Girl also features an all-star line-up of guest vocalists, including Tanya Tucker, Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt, and Don Everly, and like its predecessors would earn a gold certification, though it was her first since her Reprise debut not to hit the top 40 of the pop albums chart.
Things are kicked off with the bouncy, if unremarkable, ‘Sister’s Coming Home’ with Tanya Tucker duetting. Willie Nelson wrote the repetitive tale of a honky tonking sibling returning home, which is smothered in the pedal steel playing of Hank DeVito and Ricky Skaggs’ fiddling. As the album’s only up-tempo, it’s a forgettable tune with no real storyline and the annoying repeats of lines several times. The Skaggs family is also represented on ‘Sorrow In The Wind’. Sharon and Cheryl White contribute angelic harmonies to this sparse take on the old British folk song. Known professionally as The Whites, the sister duo scored several country top 10s in the early to mid-1980s. Sharon White also married Hot Band member Ricky Skaggs in 1982.
The uncertainty of the road ahead following the exit of a relationship filled with hard times is contemplated in ‘Rough and Rocky’. A kind-to-the-ears melody and a driving accordion lead the track, and it’s a personal favorite. Another standout is ‘Even Cowgirls Get The Blues’ with Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt. It was recorded during the first ill-fated Trio sessions. It would take another 10 years before the three women’s careers and schedules would permit the album to be produced. Roadhouse country is the main influence on the Rodney Crowell-tune.(Crowell also plays lead acoustic guitar here.)
‘Everytime You Leave’, with Don Everly was written and originally recorded by The Louvin Brothers. The narrator’s heartbreak is the result of a revolving-door relationship to which she can never say no, and even with its stellar arrangement, Harris doesn’t sound terribly invested in the song’s ultimate melancholy. Likewise flat, to me, is ‘Never Take His Love From Me’, the Leon Payne-written tune, most famously recorded by Hank Williams. Here, Emmylou flips the pronoun and offers her weakest performance on the album.
Harris has never been more than a competent vocalist; never a powerhouse belter nor a burning balladeer. That’s most evident on Blue Kentucky Girl when she wraps her raspy vocal around Gram Parsons’ signature tune ‘Hickory Wind’. The deep, desolate lyric calls for more range than Harris can muster at the climax of the song, yet the simple vocal of Harris, even when it reaches for a note it simply cannot find, still conveys all the pathos and longing of a first-class vocalist. That’s because, wide range or no, Harris’ emotive skills place her among the best of the belting divas.
The centerpiece of the album is in the last single, which would become Emmylou’s fourth country #1. ‘Beneath Still Water’ employs the analogy of still waters to illustrate the silence and indifference that comes at the end of a love affair. With the crying steel of Hank DeVito and the perfect harmonies of Fayssoux Starling, the Dallas Frazier song is a fine example of all that is great about country music.
The often-recorded as an up-tempo ‘Save The Last Dance For Me’ is given a burning juke-joint treatment here, and even though it’s enjoyable, it doesn’t showcase Doc Pomus’ lyric in a flattering light. As the album’s lead single, it became another country top 5. The title track was also a top 10 hit, and the title of an album, for Loretta Lynn in 1965. Harris offers up a more restrained vocal behind an arrangement nearly identical to Lynn’s, and both recordings are definite winners. Harris took the song one spot higher than Lynn, peaking at #6.
Harris’ attempt to appease the country critics may have worked when the reviews were written, but certainly didn’t serve to help create a diverse or as cogent a set as past albums. It also seems her expert song selection was muted in the process. Crack musicianship, literate lyrics, and Emmylou’s stirring vocals still serve to hold your attention, but there are more duds here than on any Emmylou Harris album that came before it.
Buy it at amazon.
The 2004 re-issue features two extra excellent tracks. ‘Cheatin’ Is’, with Glen Campbell, finds the pair harmonizing out justifications for sneaking around, while Rodney Crowell’s exquisite and telling ‘I Know An Ending’ is pure acoustic ear candy. Substituting either of these for the clunkers found mid-way through Blue Kentucky Girl would make for an A album.