My Kind of Country

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Album Review: Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris & Linda Ronstadt – ‘The Complete Trio Collection’

81a3vfrcssl-_sx522_-2Thirty years ago, Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt finally cleared their schedules and went into the studio to record the album they had talked about making for years. Released in March 1987, Trio was an immediate critical and commercial success, selling more than four million copies and winning two Grammy Awards. A follow-up album was released in 1999. The ladies reportedly would have liked to have recorded a third volume, but sadly Parkinson’s disease has rendered Ronstadt unable to sing. There was however, enough unreleased material from the first two albums to piece together a third collection. It consists of songs that were not used for the first two projects, as well as alternate takes and mixes of some of the songs that were used. These alternate takes/mixes sometimes differ radically from the previously released versions and at other times the changes are more subtle.

The Complete Trio Collection, released last week via Rhino Records is a three disc set consisting of remastered versions of the first two albums and a third disc of mostly previously unreleased material. Presumably most of our readers are familiar with Trio and Trio II, so I will focus on the third disc.

Despite the title, this is not a complete collection of the recordings Parton, Harris and Ronstadt made together. Noticeably absent is “Palms of Victory”, which was included in Emmylou’s 2007 Songbird collection and I assume that are other commissions. “Palms of Victory” was recorded in 1978 during one of the ladies’ earlier recording sessions from which no album was ever released. Two tracks from those sessions – “Mr. Sandman” and “Even Cowgirls Get The Blues” were released on Emmylou’s solo albums in the early 80s. Parton’s and Ronstadt’s vocals were removed from the single version of “Mr. Sandman”, since they were signed to different labels at the time.

Also labeled as unreleased is “Softly and Tenderly”, one of my favorite hymns. This track too was included in the Songbird collection. It concludes with a majestic vocal performance by Ronstadt and is well worth hearing again.

Dolly’s “Wildflowers” was a single released from the original album that reached #6 in the spring of 1988. It was a semi-biographical number on which she sang lead, with Emmylou and Linda providing the harmony vocals. The alternate take provided here has a completely different arrangement, with each of the ladies taking a turn singing the lead. The overall effect is more in the vein of “Palms of Victory” and the music that Emmylou made with Brian Ahern in the 70s. It’s quite different from the version we’re all familiar with but I liked it quite a lot. “Do I Ever Cross Your Mind” is another Dolly composition that she has revisited many times over her career. An Emmylou-led version appeared on Trio II, but the alternate version has Dolly singing the lead. It is also faster paced with a lot of handclaps. Quite different from the previous version but it works equally well.

“Making Plans” was one of the last hits that Dolly had enjoyed with Porter Wagoner. A three-part harmony version appeared on the first Trio collection. The newly released version features Dolly singing solo. It’s a beautiful performance and for a song about being alone, a single voice is quite effective. “My Dear Companion” is given a similar treatment — omitting Dolly’s and Linda’s harmony vocals. Although Emmylou does a lovely job singing it, I do miss hearing Dolly and Linda echoing her words on the chorus. “Lover’s Return” from Trio II appears here as a Linda solo. Other tracks such as “I’ve Had Enough” and “Farther Along” are remixed so subtly that many fans might not notice the differences at first.

The disc also includes a number of previously unreleased songs that are not alternate takes or remixes – i.e., “new” material. Some of them we’ve heard before in different versions: Dolly’s “My Blue Tears” done in three-part harmony here, Emmylou’s “Waltz Across Texas”, and “Grey Funnel Line” which was previously recorded by Emmylou with Irish singers Mary Black and Dolores Keane. Others are less familiar. Dolly does a beautiful job on Tony Arata’s “Handful of Dust”, although I still prefer Patty Loveless’ more uptempo version. “You Don’t Knock” is a wonderful uptempo Gospel number, and “Are You Tired of Me” is a Carter Family classic from 1927. Dolly’s original composition “Pleasant as May” was written and recorded during the 1986 sessions but sounds like something that could have come from the Carter Family era.

Rhino Records enjoys a well deserved reputation for the way it handles reissues of classic material, and for that reason I decided to purchase the physical CD set instead of downloading from iTunes as I usually buy music nowadays. I must say that I’m a bit disappointed in the packaging. I hate digipaks and was hoping for a more deluxe package similar to Songbird, but given the economic realities in the music industry today, the decision to go with cheaper packaging is understandable. That is really my sole complaint about the collection. It may be overkill for casual fans but for diehards like me, this collection is a real treat.

Grade: A+

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Country roads and greener pastures

TaylorI was really happy to hear about the release of Taylor Swift’s new single last week. Now there’s something you never thought you’d hear me say. But (you knew there had to be a “but” coming, didn’t you?) I should qualify that comment by saying my mood was not affected so much because I was looking forward to listening to new Taylor Swift music, but because the single “Shake It Off” is a watershed moment in Swift’s career, as the artist, her label and her publicists acknowledge that 1989, Swift’s forthcoming album, is not country, but pop.

I will be the first to argue that this is hardly news and that Swift’s music was never really country to begin with, but it’s nice to hear the people responsible for marketing her finally admit it. While Swift’s defenders have argued for years that she was bringing new fans to the country genre, I always maintained that her youthful fanbase was unlikely to embrace the genre at large, and that Swift herself would eventually decide that the pop world was a better fit for her. The shift began with the release of 2012’s “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together”, which became the first Taylor Swift single to be deemed not country enough for country radio. It spent nine weeks at #1 anyway, due to a ridiculous change in Billboard’s chart tabulation methodology, but that is a separate topic.
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Album Review: Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell – ‘Old Yellow Moon’

harriscrowellAlthough the prospect of an Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell duets album seemed like an idea that was long overdue, I initially kept my hopes in check, having been disappointed, more often than not, by the recent output of both artists. However, Old Yellow Moon, which was released last week has more than exceeded my admittedly guarded expectations, and is in fact the best collection that either artist has released in quite a long time.

The album was produced by Emmylou’s ex-husband Brian Ahern, who produced her best work from the 1970s and early 1980s, and the songwriting credits read like a Who’s Who in country music featuring names such as Hank DeVito, Roger Miller, Allen Reynolds, Kris Kristofferson, and of course, Rodney Crowell himself. The first two tracks, DeVito’s “Hanging Up My Heart” and an excellent cover of Miller’s “Invitation To The Blues” sound as though they could have been left over from some of those 1970s recording sessions and recently discovered in the Warner Bros. vaults. Kristofferson’s “Chase The Feeling” sounds like an old Everly Brothers tune, and I also quite like “Here We Are”, which Emmylou had previously recorded with George Jones.

I was initially less impressed with “Black Caffeine” a bluesy tribute to the dark bean; it has grown on me with repeated listenings, though I still would not rank it as one of my favorites. I found “Spanish Dancer” to be rather dull. It is closer in style to Emmylou’s post-mainstream music than anything else on the album and is my least favorite here. “Dreaming My Dreams”, the oft-covered Allen Reynolds song made famous by Waylon Jennings, is reworked as a duet. The wear and tear on both artists’ voices is quite apparent on this track, but the seasoned vocals somehow enhance the song rather than detract from it.

“Bluebird Wine” is a Crowell composition that Emmylou recorded for her debut album, 1975’s Pieces of the Sky. This time around it is given an acoustic treatment with Crowell singing lead. The album’s most polished track is Matraca Berg’s “Back When We Were Beautiful”, which is given a simple piano arrangement. The occasional cracks in Harris’ voice add credibility to the tale of an old woman reminiscing about her youth.

Only a little more than two months in, it’s a little premature to be making predictions about the best albums of the year, but it’s difficult to foresee any circumstances under which Old Yellow Moon would not be on my list of year-end picks. I hope that both Harris and Crowell will do more of this style of music in the future.

Grade: A

Album Review: Ricky Skaggs – ‘Solid Ground’

1995’s Solid Ground marks the beginning of the end of Ricky Skaggs’ major label career. The first of a pair of albums released by Atlantic Records, after more than a decade with Epic. It produced three singles, one of which failed to chart and the other two peaked outside the Top 40. He produced the project with some assistance from Brian Ahern.

Solid Ground attempts to combine the traditional country for which Ricky was well known with some more contemporary fare designed to appeal to radio. The pleasant but forgettable “Back Where We Belong” became the first single of Ricky’s career not to chart. The title track, which would have fit nicely on his previous album My Father’s Son, was released next and only climbed to #57. The third and final single, a cover of Harry Chapin’s 1974 pop hit “Cat’s In The Cradle”. At first glance it seems like an odd choice for Ricky Skaggs, but it fits well with country music’s storytelling tradition, and it was in fact, according to the song’s writers, inspired by a country song they had heard on the radio. It’s a story about a disengaged father who never has time for his son. By the end of the story, the father is an old man and begging his son to come home for a visit, but the son is too busy with his own life to oblige. It’s a departure for Skaggs stylistically and also thematically, since most of his other songs about family relationships are happy ones. It’s a bit of a stretch for Ricky, but he rises to the occasion nicely. I quite like it and wish it had risen higher on the charts than its #45 peak.

Bluegrass music played a huge role in the success of Ricky’s early 80s work for Epic, but he had become decidedly more mainstream by the decade’s end. On Solid Ground, however, he gives a nod to his bluegrass roots with a cover of Bill Monroe’s “Cry, Cry Darlin'”, which features harmony vocals by Vince Gill and Alison Krauss. “Callin’ Your Name” sounds like an old bluegrass number but it was actually a new song written by Larry Cordle and Chris Austin, and is one of the highlights of the album. Less effective is Ricky’s cover of the Webb Pierce/Mel Tillis rockabilly number “I Ain’t Never”, which doesn’t quite work. Rounding out the album are a couple of nice ballads, “Every Drop of Water” and “Can’t Control The Wind”.

Late career label changes generally do little to revive an artist’s flagging career, and Solid Ground was no exception. In addition to its failure to produce any radio hits, it also became the lowest charting album of Ricky’s career up to that point, landing at #72 on the Billboard Top Country Albums chart. His next and final major label release failed to chart at all; after that he returned to bluegrass full time and released a number of acclaimed independent releases, most of which charted higher than his last couple of albums for the majors.

Solid Ground is but a footnote in the Skaggs discography, and not an album that is well remembered today; however, it is nevertheless an enjoyable listen. It’s inexpensive and easy to find.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Emmylou Harris – ‘Hard Bargain’

Beginning with the release of the rock-oriented Wrecking Ball, Emmylou’s music has been very hit or miss for me. I disliked that 1995 project, which Emmylou herself describes as her “weird album”, and I was similarly disenchanted with 2000’s Red Dirt Girl and 2003’s Stumble Into Grace, although all three albums did have their bright spots. All I Intended To Be, which reunited her with Brian Ahern, was a step back in the right direction for those of us who had longed for another Brand New Dance or Cowgirl’s Prayer, but anyone who thought that her 2008 album was the beginning of a journey back to more traditional country music will perhaps be slightly disappointed with her newest offering Hard Bargain.

I wasn’t sure what to expect with this album, so I came to it without any preconceived notions about the style of music. Having listened to it a few times, I’m not sure how to classify this genre-defying project except to say that by and large, it isn’t country. It’s not the sort of music I generally enjoy listening to, but nevertheless, I found Hard Bargain to be a quite pleasant listening experience. Emmylou wrote the majority of the songs, and only three musicians play all of the instruments on the album: Jay Joyce, who produced the project, Giles Reaves, and Emmylou herself. Although there are some production missteps along the way, the extremely limited number of musicians participating helps them to avoid falling into the trap of wall-of-sound overproduction, such as the kind that plagued Wrecking Ball.

Nearly forty years after she was recruited by Gram Parsons, her mentor still casts a long shadow over Emmylou’s music, as evidenced in the album’s opening track and lead single “The Road”, which talks about the time they spent touring together:

I can still remember
Every song you played
Long ago when we were younger
And we rocked the night away
How could I see a future then
Where you would not grow old
With such a fire in our bellies
Such a hunger in our soul.

… I still think about you
Wonder where you are
Can you see me from some place
Up there among the stars

One of the more heavily-produced tracks on the album, “The Road” has some Daniel Lanois Wrecking Ball-esque production flourishes. It has not charted and is not likely to garner much airplay from country radio.

More stripped down are “Home Sweet Home” and “My Name Is Emmett Till”, a 60s-style folk number that tells the story of a 14-year-old hate crime victim in pre-Civil Rights era Mississippi. “New Orleans”, which Emmylou co-wrote with Will Jennings deals with the floods that ravaged that city after Hurricane Katrina. It’s a surprisingly upbeat-sounding song given the subject matter, and somewhat distracting to listen to due to the way the recording was mixed. The track is somewhat heavy on percussion, and Emmylou’s voice sounds very faint, as if it were recorded through a telephone line. This same flaw plagues the title track and “Cross Yourself”, but not to the same extent as “New Orleans”.

Emmylou is well known for her animal rescue work,a subject that is near and dear to my own heart, and one that is the topic of “Big Black Dog”, a homage to a rescued canine. Large black dogs are the least likely to adopted from shelters, but as Emmylou correctly points out, they can make wonderful pets:

Big black dogs they’re everywhere
Lookin’ for a home they’re hungry and scared
All they need is food and attention
They’ll give you back love
Sometimes redemption I swear
You could find it there
In a big, black dog.

Despite the somewhat somber lyrics, this is an upbeat, almost happy-sounding and surprisingly catchy number.

The most poignant song in this collection and my favorite is “Darlin’ Kate”, Emmylou’s tribute to her good friend and frequent collaborator, the late Kate McGarrigle, who died last year. The, the simple lyrics and acoustic arrangement enhanced by Jay Joyce’s ganjo (six-string banjo) playing, give the track a more country feel than most of the others songs on the album.

I seem to be a sucker for bonus tracks; for some reason they usually end up being some of my favorite tracks, and “To Ohio”, which appears on the deluxe version of Hard Bargain, is no exception. Breaking with the three-musicians-only formula of the rest of the album, Emmylou is joined on this track by the folk band The Low Anthem, who provide very nice duet and harmony vocals. There aren’t any musician credits for this track in the CD booklet, but the production is a little more filled-out on this track, so I suspect the band members are playing some of the instruments.

Overall, while I enjoyed this album quite a bit, it doesn’t quite stack up with the very best of Emmylou’s past work, which admittedly, is a very high standard. Though I would have preferred another All I Intended To Be, or better yet, something closer to the type of albums she regularly released in the 70s, Hard Bargain rates higher than most of Emmylou’s post-1995 work, and should satisfy most of her longtime fans.

Grade: B

Hard Bargain can be purchased from Amazon and iTunes.

Album Review: Emmylou Harris – ‘All I Intended To Be’

Emmylou Harris’ third album for the Nonesuch label found her reunited with producer and former husband Brian Ahern. All I Intended To Be would feature Harris’ most country arrangements in over a decade, and would be hailed by most as the singer’s triumphant return to a traditional country sound, which it certainly is. More than a return to form, this is also an album that finds Harris bringing the broader songwriting selection that characterized her Americana work, and striking the perfect balance between the two in sound and song. Peaking at #4 on the Country Albums chart and #22 on the Billboard 200, Harris earned her highest showing on either since her hit-making days.

The slow-burning opener ‘Shores of White Sand’, is a tale of a woman not sure where to go in life and features steel guitar flourishes to help illustrate the lonely feel of it all.

The album’s centerpiece is Jude Johnstone’s exquisite ‘Hold On’,a tender tune addressed to a man who behaves as if life has lost all spark. As the singer attempts to assuage his uncertainty and remind him of better times,

I know you didn’t plan for this
But that’s the way it always starts
Just lookin’ for a little kick
Instead you bought a broken heart

the tempo progressively builds, aided mostly by dualing acoustic and electric guitars, and Harris’ delivery becomes more forceful.

Emmylou co-wrote ‘How She Could Sing The Wildwood Flower’ which tells the story of A.P. and Sara Carter, with Kate and Anna McGarrigle, after the three saw a documentary about the legendary country music family. The recently deceased Kate McGarrigle appears on this sweetly acoustic track singing harmonies, and plays a banjo solo as well.

Aside from those co-writes, Emmylou’s songwriting is represented here with ‘Take That Ride’, a melody-driven mid-tempo tale of a flame burned out, with the narrator staying more out of lack of interest in leaving than love. Harris also wrote the sparse ‘Not Enough’, which recounts the story of the death of a dear friend, and the emotional steps that surround it. As Harris’ plaintive vocal bends the hard-hitting lines – “Oh my dear friend, what could I do, I just came home to bury you” – it’s clear she’s mastered the art of melancholy story-telling.

Emmylou’s songs stand up with the other Americana mainstays like Patty Griffin and Tracy Chapman she’s included here. That’s best evidenced by the must-hear ‘Gold’, with Dolly Parton and Vince Gill contributing harmonies. In it, the singer admits defeat in a relationship where she simply couldn’t meet her lover’s ridiculous expectations. ‘Gold’ also features the album’s most traditional arrangement, complete with a rolling steel guitar solo.

A nod to two of country music’s greatest songwriters come from Emmylou’s take on Merle Haggard’s ‘Kern River’, where exquisite harmonies from Stuart Duncan, Mike Auldridge, and John Starling play perfectly with the mournful fiddle backdrop. She includes a mostly acoustic, and somewhat plodding, take on Billy Joe Shaver’s ‘Old Five and Dimers Like Me’, sang as a duet with John Starling.

While re-exploring the more acoustic sound of her best-known work, Harris delivered an album of solid songs, made all the better by the greatest instrument in the credits: her own seasoned voice.

Grade: A-

Buy it at amazon.

Album Review: Emmylou Harris – ‘Quarter Moon In A Ten Cent Town’

Emmylou’s fourth album was released in January 1978 on Warner Brothers, which had taken over her contract from the subsidiary Reprise. A personal favorite of mine, it contains a number of her classic recordings. The lineup marks the replacement of Rodney Crowell in the Hot Band by Ricky Skaggs, with both men playing on the record. The arrangements and musicians are, as usual, impeccable. There was a change of emphasis with the selection of material, with no classic revivals this time (although a number of the tracks have become classics in their own right since), but a concentration on new songs.  The quality of material is as high as Emmylou’s fans had come to expect. Emmylou was now married to producer Brian Ahern, and their personal and professional partnership showed them in perfect tune. Ironically, given her newlywed status, the overarching theme is one of leaving, whether that means a lover or spouse, a parent, or life itself.

One of the classics born on this record was the first single. ‘To Daddy’ was written by Dolly Parton, who generously relinquished the opportunity to sing the song to her friend, not recording it herself for many years. Emmylou’s subtle version was a big hit, reaching #3. The devastating lyric tells the story of a downtrodden wife and mother who suffers silently for years with her neglectful and uncaring husband, and then leaves with as little fuss as she made during the marriage:

She never meant to come back home
If she did, she never did say so to Daddy

Told from the viewpoint of one of the children, Emmylou delivers one of her purest vocals, allowing the lyrics to speak for themselves. This is still one of my favorite Emmylou Harris recordings. It was followed on the charts by the #1 hit ‘Two More Bottles Of Wine’, an up-tempo rocking-blues Delbert McClinton song which offers a defiant response to loneliness and a lover’s departure:

It’s alright cause it’s midnight and I got two more bottles of wine

Another song now widely (and rightly) regarded as a classic, the poetic ‘Easy From Now On’, written by Guy Clark’s wife Susanna and a young Carlene Carter (billed by her first married name of Routh), peaked at #12. Emmylou sounds a little sad as she plans to drink the night away following the end of a relationship. The lyrics provide the album’s title, and Susanna Clark also painted the picture used for the cover art.

Rodney Crowell, about to leave the Hot Band to launch his own solo career, contributed a couple of songs as a parting gift. There are Cajun touches to the story song ‘Leaving Louisiana In The Broad Daylight , which was later a hit for the Oak Ridge Boys. Rick Danko of The Band sings harmony and his bandmate Garth Hudson plays sax and accordion. The driving ‘I Ain’t Living Long Like This’ is a hard-boiled country rocker addressed to a low-life individual headed for life in jail, and Rodney’s own version was to be the title track of his debut album later the same year, also on Warner Brothers.

Willie Nelson sings a prominent harmony on the folky ‘One Paper Kid’, a downbeat story about another of life’s failures, set to an attractive tune and a very simple acoustic backing consisting of Mickey Raphael’s harmonica and Emmylou herself on guitar. The pair had toured together, and their voices blend beautifully on another highlight.

The tribute to the ‘Green Rolling Hills’ of West Virginia, written by folk singer Utah Phillips, is sung as a duet with Emmylou’s longtime harmony singer Fayssoux Starling, which sounds just lovely. Ricky Skaggs, Rodney Crowell’s replacement in the Hot Band, plays fiddle and viola on this track, foreshadowing the changes his influence was to bring in Emmylou’s music.

Singer-songwriter Jesse Winchester contributed two songs, the beautiful and perhaps metaphorical ballad ‘My Songbird’ and the swooping and allusive ‘Defying Gravity’, with Nicolette Larson on harmony. The album closes with the slowed down bluesy rockabilly of ‘Burn That Candle’, which is the only track I don’t much like, with some very odd emphases in the pronunciation.

The 2004 CD reissue included two previously unreleased live cuts from the early 80s with a Cajun flavor – Guy Clark’s ‘New Cut Road’ and ‘Lacassine Special’ (sung in French). They are well performed, but feel a little out of place here.

Grade: A

Album Review: Emmylou Harris – ‘Luxury Liner’

1977’s Luxury Liner is the third offering in Emmylou Harris’ discography, excluding 1970’s Gliding Bird. Like its two predecessors, it is an eclectic mix of country and rock-and-roll, relying a little more heavily on cover material than her earlier albums had done. Produced by Brian Ahern and backed by her superb Hot Band, Emmylou pays tribute to everyone from Chuck Berry and her late mentor Gram Parsons to The Carter Family, The Louvin Brothers, and Kitty Wells. Though it failed to produce any Top 5 hits, Luxury Liner reached #1 on the Billboard Top Country Albums chart and is Emmylou’s best-selling solo effort.

Rodney Crowell, Albert Lee, Glen D. Hardin, Emory Gordy Jr. and Ricky Skaggs all make appearances as members of The Hot Band, while Herb Pedersen, Nicolette Larson, Fayssoux Starling, and Dolly Parton lend their voices to the project. The first single was a cover of Chuck Berry’s 1964 hit “You Never Can Tell (C’est La Vie”), which is given a Cajun flavor by Ricky Skaggs on fiddle. It reached #6 on the Billboard country singles chart. For the second single, Emmylou did an about-face and released the very traditional “Making Believe”, a remake of Kitty Wells’ 1955 hit. Emmylou’s version reached #8.

Although only two singles were released, Luxury Liner contains some very well known album cuts. “Hello Stranger”, on which Nicolette Larson chimes in, had been a hit for The Carter Family in the 1930s. Though clearly not in the vein of what country radio was playing in the 1970s, I was surprised to learn that the track had never been released as a single, primarily because of its inclusion on Emmylou’s 1978 compilation album Profile. Also in the traditional vein are Susanna Clark’s “I’ll Be Your Rose of San Antone” and a remake of the Louvin Brothers’ 1955 recording “When I Stop Dreaming,” on which Dolly Parton provides a beautiful harmony vocal. My personal favorite among this set, “When I Stop Dreaming” sowed the seeds for the Trio project which would appear a decade later.

On the more contemporary side are the title track and “She”, both written by Harris’ mentor Gram Parsons (the latter co-written with Chris Etheridge), a pair of Rodney Crowell tunes (“You’re Supposed To Be Feeling Good” and “Tulsa Queen”, which he co-wrote with Emmylou), and a cover of Townes Van Zandt’s “Pancho and Lefty”, a tale of two aging Mexican bandits, which would go on to become a #1 smash for Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard in 1983.

Warner Bros. remastered and re-released Luxury Liner in 2004, along with two bonus tracks: “Me and Willie” and the excellent “Night Flyer” which was written by Johhny Mullins. Mullins is best known as the writer of “Blue Kentucky Girl” which had been a hit for both Emmylou and Loretta Lynn.

Eclectic albums are hard to pull off; it’s difficult to perform a wide variety of musical styles well. It’s even more difficult to put together such a collection without losing cohesion or alienating fans who prefer one style over another. But Emmylou and the Hot Band move seamlessly from rock to old-time country and everything in between, and even though I consider the two Crowell-penned tunes to be the weakest on the album, there really isn’t a bad song to be found here.

Grade: A

Luxury Liner is available from Amazon and iTunes and is well worth seeking out.

Album Review: Emmylou Harris – ‘Elite Hotel’

The success of Pieces of the Sky sent Emmylou Harris from relative unknown folk-rocker to A-list country star.  Still, the texture of her second album remained the same hodgepodge of rock covers, country classics, and original songs that had served Harris so well on her debut. Elite Hotel brought many firsts in Harris’ career, including her first Grammy for Best Female Country Vocal Performance in 1976, her first #1 album, and first #1 single in ‘Together Again’. Elite Hotel, like its predecessor would be certified gold. Adding to her precious metal collection, Harris collected her first gold single with ‘Together Again’.

‘Together Again’ is a cover of Buck Owens’ chart-topper. Owens version was an originally a B-side to his ‘My Heart Skips a Beat’. ‘Together Again’ topped the charts for Buck in 1964 – replacing the A-side on the charts – and by April 1976, became the first of six number-ones for Emmylou Harris. Celebrating the song’s charting power, Owens and Harris recorded a duet, ‘Play Together Again, Again’, a few years later.  Emmylou offers a similar melancholy take, imbuing the tear-soaked lyric with an understated sadness.  Hot Band member Glen D. Hardin provides an elegant honky tonk piano arrangement against the crying pedal steel of Hank DeVito, leaving the track timeless.

At radio, the album spawned another top 5 and a second #1.  The mostly acoustic ‘One of These Days’, with its sweet ode to wanderlust, features a winning dobro solo, and landed at #3 as the second single.  A cover of Don Gibson’s many-times-a-hit ‘Sweet Dreams’ gave Harris her second #1, and while technically proficient, I find Emmylou’s live recording, like so many others, bland compared to Patsy Cline’s definitive take on the song.  The eclectic blend of quality material on her albums reflect that Harris has always taken the album approach to record-making as opposed to the singles practice.  Here, she ably mixes rock with classic country, approaching each track with a traditional or acoustic touch.

Her work with Gram Parsons is more prevalent on Elite Hotel than ever before.  She offers a somber take on The Flying Burrito Brothers’ ‘Sin City’, slowing the track down a full beat.  Johnathan Edwards provides harmony on a traditional country version of ‘Wheels’, with a driving steel guitar track.  Edwards later released two albums on Warner Brothers, both produced by Brian Ahern.  ‘Ooh Las Vegas’, from Parsons’ posthumous Grevious Angel album, gets a smoking bluegrass arrangement.

Rodney Crowell’s exquisite ‘Til I Gain Control Again’ anchors the original material included here, and also provides the best showcase for Emmylou’s interpretive abilities.  The vulnerable confessional of the lyrics are never conveyed better, through countless covers, than on this string and steel mesh of goodness.  Crowell also co-wrote the only Harris contribution to the album, the tongue-in-cheek ‘Amarillo’, with its raw roadhouse sound.

Continuing to show off the versatility of herself and her famed Hot Band, Harris offers The Beatles’ ‘Here There and Everywhere’.  Here, the song is complimented by a hushed string section and the sparing use of an electric guitar. It too charted on the country singles chart as the B-side to ‘Together Again’. But more notably, ‘Here’ hit the top 5 of the Canadian Adult Contemporary chart, and it found a home inside the U.K. Top 40.  Likewise, a swinging jaunt into Hank Williams’ ‘Jambalaya’ is greeted with the vocal verve the singer brings to each track, and each musician is allowed a chance to shine on this one.

Elite Hotel proved Emmylou Harris’ most success album to date commercially, and ignited her hot streak at country radio.  But most importantly, it provided a showcase for the team of crack musicians she had assembled and for her own lofty artist visions.

Grade: A

Buy it at amazon.

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.

Spotlight Artist: Emmylou Harris

Emmylou Harris was not born to be a country singer. Born in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1947, daughter of an Air Force officer, she grew up in North Carolina and Virginia. She dropped out of college to pursue a career as a folk singer, inspired by the 60s revival of traditional folk music in America. After releasing one album, Gliding Bird (suppressed for years) and following the failure of her first marriage, her life took a defining turn when she met Gram Parsons in 1971 (recommended by Chris Hillman who had been impressed by Emmylou when he saw her in concert). Parsons, an alumnus of the seminal country-rock bands The Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers, introduced Emmylou to country music. Emmylou’s haunting harmonies added a touch of magic to Gram’s more shambolic vocals, and her vocal contributions to the two albums on which they collaborated, GP and Grievous Angel, were so significant to their sound that (although billed as solo Parsons records) they were really a duo act. Parsons, a self-destructive soul addicted to drugs and alcohol, died of an overdose in 1973, and, traumatic though this loss was, Emmylou was freed to pursue her own star.

She signed to the Warner Brothers imprint Reprise Records (a contract which was passed to Warner when the smaller label was closed), and began working with producer Brian Ahern, who she was to marry in 1977. Starting with 1975’s Pieces Of The Sky, Emmylou Harris released a sequence of now-classic albums through the 70s, notable for their selection of material: country and bluegrass classics, rock covers, and new songs; for the extraordinary singing and harmony work; and for the superb musicianship mostly from her own Hot Band. Her work was critically acclaimed and also well received on country radio, with a string of hits including five #1s. She won her first Grammy in 1976 for her second album, Elite Hotel.

Emmylou’s live bands have been a large part of her success over the years. The legendary Hot Band in the 70s and 80s had a changing but always stellar lineup, starting with Elvis Presley’s guitarist James Burton(succeeded by the British born virtuoso Albert Lee, writer of ‘Country Boy’), pianist Glen D Hardin, steel player Hank De Vito, and bassist Emory Gordy Jr. One significant member was singer songwriter Rodney Crowell on rhythm guitar for three years. When Crowell moved on to start his own solo career, he was replaced by the multiple instrumentalist Ricky Skaggs, who brought a bluegrass influence to the band before launching his own spectacular career in country music.

From 1979 onwards, Emmylou, always eclectic, began to experiment further, with the pure country Blue Kentucky Girl, the bluegrass Roses In The Snow, an acoustic Christmas album (Light Of The Stable), live recordings (Last Date), even the odd disco song on 1983’s more rock-influenced White Shoes. Her marriage to Ahern broke down, and in 1985 she released the underrated concept album The Ballad Of Sally Rose, with a storyline very loosely inspired by her early career with Gram Parsons, all of which she wrote with English-born songwriter Paul Kennerley, who also took over as her producer, and soon became husband #3 (the couple divorced in 1992). The record was a commercial failure, although one song, ‘Woman Walk The Line’, was later picked up by other artists (Highway 101 and Trisha Yearwood have both recorded it).

She had collaborated frequently on other artists’ records throughout her career (and brought them in to sing on her own), but in 1987 she combined with her friends Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt to record the acclaimed, and platinum selling, Trio, and she also recorded a solo country gospel record, Angel Band, produced by longtime Hot Band member Emory Gordy Jr, with Vince Gill singing harmony.

Notwithstanding the success of Trio, her solo star was waning by this point, and in 1991 Emmylou made another major change, replacing the Hot Band with a new acoustic group called the Nash Ramblers. Their musicianship was just as high quality, including Sam Bush on fiddle and mandolin, and a young singer/guitarist then billed as Randy Stewart who was later to pursue a solo career as singer and songwriter Jon Randall, and is currently known by his full name, Jon Randall Stewart. This lineup gave Emmylou’s music a new impetus, and they recorded a Grammy winning live album at the Ryman (her last release on Warner Brothers). However, commercial success was still diminishing, and after the relative failure of 1993’s Cowgirl’s Prayer on Warners subsidiary Elektra, Emmylou made the most radical change yet in her music.

In 1995 she turned to rock producer Daniel Lanois to create the controversial Wrecking Ball. This album’s connections with country music are limited, but it brought Emmylou acclaim from outside the genre, and earned her a Contemporary Folk Grammy. Another new band, Spyboy, featured guitarist Buddy Miller. A live album, Live In Germany 2000, has just been released (I think in Germany) and showcases this period. She was to continue in the vein for the next few years, investing more in her own songwriting than she had done earlier in her career. 2008’s All I Intended To Be, her most recent album, reunited Emmylou with Brian Ahern, and combined elements of her more recent style with aspects of her classic work of the 70s. A new album (Hard Bargain) is due later this month on Nonesuch Records, another Warner Brothers subsidiary which has released Emmylou’s solo work since 2003. She will appear on the Letterman Show to promote it on April 27. Also hot off the presses, a new imported budget box set brings together five of her classic albums, all of which we plan to feature as part of our coverage.

Emmylou Harris was inducted into the Country Music Hall Of Fame in 2008. She was the CMA Female Vocalist of the Year in 1980, and has won numerous Grammy’s. At her peak she was able to appeal to both country and non-country audiences without compromising her music, and she introduced new generations to artists like the Louvin Brothers. Even when I haven’t cared for some of her changes in direction, they were clearly rooted in her artistic vision rather than in the hunt for sales figures. During April we hope to share with you some of the highlights of the career of one of the most adventurous and significant artists in country music in the past 40 years.