My Kind of Country

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

Album Review: Emmylou Harris – ‘Blue Kentucky Girl’

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.

Grade: B

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.

7 responses to “Album Review: Emmylou Harris – ‘Blue Kentucky Girl’

  1. Arlene April 17, 2011 at 10:31 pm

    It’s one think to observe that Emmylou Harris is a “limited” vocalist– after all, almost every singer’s style is a product of his or her vocal limitations. However, to characerize her as “never more than a competent vocalist” while conceding that her vocals are at times “stirring” and that “her emotive skills place her among the best of the belting divas” leads me to question your definition of vocal “competency,” which most acknowledge is measured by far more than just range. Also, your assertion that Blue Kentucky Girl was recorded to “appease” critics is curious, to say the least. I doubt Emmylou Harris has ever recorded a single song, let alone an entire album, to appease critics, record company executives, or even her fans. If anything, Blue Kentucky Girl seems to have been both an expression of her musical interests at the time–Ricky Skaggs had just joined her band– and an effort to almost “get in critics’ faces” by demonstrating that of course she had the talent to record in a purer, more traditional country style. The term “appeasement” has a negative connotation that I believe inaccurately describes her motivation for making this album. Someone who’s never really cared what critics think doesn’t feel the need to try and appease them.

  2. J.R. Journey April 19, 2011 at 8:13 pm

    Thanks for the thoughtful response, Arlene. I’ll try to explain myself the best I can.

    I say she’s merely a ‘competent vocalist’ in the sense that Emmylou generally stays in pitch and delivers her message thoroughly. I say she’s not more than that because she doesn’t fall into the category of great ‘belting divas’ like Trisha Yearwood, Reba, k.d. lang, etc. But she certainly makes up for her power limitations by packing the right emotions into her singing at times.

    Regarding the critics, I used several sources to come to my conclusion that there was some conscious effort to appeal to critics who were indifferent to Harris’ country credibility. The first was the allmusic review (linked from the wikipedia page of this album). I also found more than one print interview from the time of the album’s release where Emmylou says just that herself. I am paraphrasing here, but her response to the “kinds of songs you’ll hear on this new record” question went something like “We tried, with both the songs and they way they sound, to make this a more country record than the last couple.” She went on to say she even left off certain songs because they didn’t fit “with the kind of record we wanted to make.”

    I can’t speak for Harris or Ahern, but from the research I did to write this review, I certainly got the impression that it was her intention to make an album to quiet the outcry that she wasn’t ‘country enough’. I also think she succeeded in making a good country record. I still think the results were weaker than her previous efforts, and I can only conclude this to be the primary factor.

  3. Arlene April 21, 2011 at 5:39 pm

    Thanks for your response,J.R. It may be just a question of semantics but I believe you can be far more than a “merely competent” vocalist without being a “belting diva.” For example, I don’t think of Alison Krauss, Shelby Lynne and Patty Griffin, or for that matter, Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn as “belting divas” yet I’d never describe any of them as “merely competent” vocalists. I’m not a country music historian but I’ve long thought that vocal restraint was a characteristic that distinguished a great deal of country music from pop music, and I don’t associate vocal restraint with “mere competency.” Thanks again for the exchange.

  4. Razor X April 22, 2011 at 2:25 pm

    I like this album but I think I’d rank it slightly below Emmylou’s other 70s efforts.

  5. Thea Bakker January 26, 2013 at 12:34 pm

    It’s the fifth Warner album after “Pieces Of The Sky”, “Elite Hotel”, “Luxury Liner” & “Quarter Moon In A Ten Cent Town”.

  6. Paul W Dennis January 26, 2013 at 10:52 pm

    This was the first Emmylou Harris I purchased. Prior to this I viewed her as more of a fellow traveler than a real country artist. This album sold me on her and I went back and picked up her prior albums. Because she is so limited as a lead vocalist (although she is the world’s greatest female harmony vocalist) , I don’t regard any of her albums as great. On a track by track basis, this is my favorite of her studio albums, but because of the lack of variety in tempo, the whole is less than the sum of the parts

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