We were all, well myself & a few friends, a little in love with Emmylou Harris before we had seen even a photograph of her. Gram Parsons & the Fallen Angels never crossed the Atlantic so, in 1973, all we had was his debut solo LP “GP”, a perfect expression of the beauty, honesty & purity of Gram’s Country vision. Emmylou provided backing vocals on the record & stepped forward for two sparkling duets. Move aside George & Tammy, Conway & Loretta, as good as you are “We’ll Sweep Out the Ashes” & “That’s All it Took” sounded like there were new Sweethearts of the Rodeo in town.
By the time the follow-up LP “Grievous Angel” was released in January 1974 their professional & personal relationship had become closer. The byline was to read “with Emmylou Harris” & she was to appear on the cover. Unfortunately, in September 1973, Gram had overdosed & died aged just 27. His widow Gretchen removed the credit, the photo & the intended title track “Sleepless Nights”, a haunting duet written by Felice & Boudleaux Bryant. The posthumous LP reinforced the talent & vision of Gram & the strength of his partnership with Emmylou. Another better known song by the Bryants, “Love Hurts”, is as sad & beautiful & gorgeous as music can get. As fans losing Gram was a shock despite knowing of his penchant for the High Life. Back then good people were dying from that shit. We could only imagine the effect that losing her mentor & friend had on Emmylou.
One of the many things that made Gram’s solo records outstanding was the quality of the musicians taking part. The sessions for “GP” had involved members of Elvis Presley’s touring band & that’s a job you get for what you know not who. The full band came around for “Grievous…” & their commitment to this music showed when 3 of them not only joined the sessions for Ms Harris’ solo debut “Pieces of the Sky” (1975) but agreed to accompany her on live dates. “Pieces…” was a 100% classy operation & a template for future records with an immaculate song selection across the traditional & modern Country canon & a Beatles cover, “For No One” all perfectly sung. “Boulder to Birmingham”, the only song co-written by Emmylou, was really saying something, catharsis for her grief. There are some very good tunes on the record but “Boulder…” has deservedly become one of her signature pieces & I’ve got to include it here.
“Elite Hotel” was released in the last week of 1975 & in the New Year Emmylou & her, aptly named, Hot Band came over to Europe for the first time. We were regulars at rock concerts, had seen some of music’s great stars & this was a special night. Elvis’s boys were there, bass player Emory Gordy Jr, arranger/pianist Glen D Hardin, a former Cricket (“Don’t Ever Change”…oh yes!), veteran of countless sessions & the “Shindig” TV show house band. His fellow Shin-digger James Burton’s guitar playing had helped shaped the sound of Rock & Roll. Every insertion he made on his Pink Paisley Telecaster a model of taste, precision, economy & wonder. John Ware on drums, Hank de Vito, pedal steel & young Texan Rodney Crowell, who had contributed a song to the first record, completed a stellar line-up. It must have given Emmylou confidence to have such strong onstage support. With her own talent & personality she certainly wasn’t in the shadows. I thought that I had some stuff about Gram sorted out but when she & her boys performed evocative versions of “Sin City” & “Return of the Grievous Angel”, songs I never thought I would hear done so well, look, I think I had a cold, I certainly had something in my eye…sniff.
“Elite Hotel” & “Luxury Liner” followed the same pattern. They were both #1 Country LPs & part of a string of 7 consecutive Gold records. James Burton stopped touring while continuing to show out at the studio. His replacement was Brit Albert Lee, already known as a fine player & the transition was seamless. Emmylou could sing the phone book & it would sound just fine, she continued to tip her stetson to GP & the choice of songs remained as strong as ever whether from the Louvin Brothers or Townes Van Zandt. Two years after that first concert I saw her play again, promoting “Quarter Moon in a Ten Cent Town” (1978). This time I was ready & enjoyed a wonderful evening, beautiful music beautifully played. (Perhaps I’m overusing that word today but hey, it’s true).
Emmylou did take some detours & extended her range with Bluegrass & then “The Ballad of Sally Rose” (1985) where she & her then husband Paul Kennerley wrote all the songs. In 1987 “Trio”, her collaboration with Dolly Parton & Linda Ronstadt, a long time coming what with schedules, labels & whatever, a whole lot of harmonic loveliness, was nominated as Album of the Year at the Grammies. Perhaps there came a time when there were enough Emmylou Harris LPs in your collection. Those first records set new standards for modern Country music which were difficult to match nevermind surpass. In 1992 at a damp, desultory, sparsely attended Crystal Palace Bowl her set lacked the intimacy of an indoor gig & the old songs sounded, well, a little old.
Form is temporary but class is permanent & in 1995 her 18th studio LP turned up on many of my friends turntables. “Wrecking Ball” was an update of the early records, well chosen contemporary songs, Neil Young, Dylan, Steve Earle, Lucinda Williams & Gillian Welch…I did say well chosen, given an atmospheric, innovative working by producer Daniel Lanois (Eno, U2, Dylan). Emmylou’s vocals are a little more grainy, suiting the melancholy of the record. Her subsequent recordings are still getting nominated for awards & deservedly still winning them.
When Emmylou began her solo career the Gram Parsons legend was not yet sewn into Rock’s Rich Tapestry & straight Country music was for the straights. What she had was her Hot Band & the voice of a honky tonk angel. Her talent to reach the emotional heart of a song has made her a legend, a Queen of Country. She has worked with so many fine artists, it’s a list & it’s a long one. I could have chosen so many tracks for this post, the quality is so high. As I’m the King round here a track from “Stumble Into Grace” (2003) makes the cut. “Little Bird” is a collaboration with Canadian sisters Kate & Anna McGarrigle, a trio from my idea of Heaven. Just perfect.
While I’m here “Cowboy Angels” is a live radio broadcast from 1975. Emmylou & the Hot Band were still a new unit & they are a little less polished than on the studio recordings. It’s like listening to the best bar band in the world. In 1979 she recorded a duet with Charlie Louvin, the surviving brother of an act whose harmonies inspired Gram & Emmylou to make such beautiful, enduring music together. The EmmyLouvin Brothers…it’s right here !
Oh yeah, did I mention that I’m still a little in love with Emmylou Harris ?