Honky Tonk Angel (Emmylou Harris)

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.

 

Related imageBy 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.

 

Image result for the hot band james burton“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).

 

Related imageEmmylou 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.

 

Image result for emmylou harrisWhen 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 ?

 

 

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One More For The Rodeo Sweethearts (The Byrds Part 4)

At the beginning of 1968 the 2 remaining members of the Byrds, Roger McGuinn & Chris Hillman, hooked up with drummer Kevin Kelley for a tour of American colleges. This reduced line-up could handle a stripped down set of the folk rock hits but the subtle atmospherics of the new LP  “The Notorious Byrd Brothers” were beyond the trio. They went looking for a keyboard player & they found Gram Parsons, a young talent whose attempt to fuse country music with rock with the International Submarine Band had stalled after one unreleased LP. Gram’s association with the Byrds, proved to be short & bittersweet. It produced just one LP but “Sweetheart of the Rodeo” is undoubtedly a wonderful thing, in the modern vernacular, a “game-changer” for the group & for contemporary American music.

 

Roger McGuinn’s grand vision for the follow up to “Notorious…” was a double LP, a history of American popular music from bluegrass to electronic. GP brought his own ideas to the group & immediately stimulated the Byrds to pursue a new direction. He joined in February & in the first week of March the Byrds were recording on Music Row in Nashville where they made both kinds of music, country & western. Back in 1968 the audiences for rock & country were from different worlds in the same nation, a mutual fear & loathing separating  generations. Rock music was putting on a kaftan & protesting the war in Vietnam while country still proudly wore a red, white & blue collar. In Nashville the Byrds appeared at the Grand Ole Opry & the audience did not react well to this “longhair” intrusion on hallowed ground. In the summer of 1968 the cutting edge of American rock was the jagged lysergic take on the Blues from San Francisco. Within a month of each other the Grateful Dead released “Anthem of the Sun”, Big Brother & the Holding Co, “Cheap Thrills” & Jefferson Airplane, “Crown of Creation”. So here come those Byrds with some cowboy songs, yeah, that’ll work.

 

 

Side 1 Track 1, “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere”, a flying start featuring the pedal steel of Nashville cat Lloyd Green. Bob Dylan’s unrecorded songs, written during recuperation from a motorcycle accident, were circulated on a publisher’s demo & the Byrds, in at the beginning of this Dylan cover racket, were able to take their pick. “Sweetheart…” begins with this perfect statement of intent, a full-blooded modern blend of folk, rock & country. The LP takes a road trip along a country highway, stepping back to a Woody Guthrie hoedown, gospel from the late 1940s, stopping off at some lost (to a rock audience anyhow) classics before hitting 1968 with 2 of Gram’s songs & a cover of William Bell’s Stax hit “You Don’t Miss Your Water”. The final track, “Nothing Was Delivered”, another Dylan song, brings the record back to cutting-edge Byrds country.

McGuinn & Hillman had no songs to contribute to “Sweetheart…”. They had musical roots in folk & bluegrass but it was Parsons, younger, ambitious & committed to getting it right this time, who became the dominant figure in the recording sessions. He lobbied for pedal steel player JayDee Maness to be included in the live shows. The Byrds had been here before when David Crosby’s enthusiasm for his own talent had become too big for his poncho. This time the young tyro was not even a co-signee to the group’s new contract but a salaried employee. The 2 founder members went along with this because they knew they were on to a good thing but when producer Lee Hazelwood’s lawyers showed up claiming to have Gram under contract & threatening to sue they took rapid & drastic action. On 3 songs the freshman’s lead vocals were re-recorded by the seniors & the new versions rushed to the pressing plant.

 

 

So the “Sweetheart of the Rodeo” that we heard had a lot more McGuinn than originally intended & Roger had again re-established his position as Big Byrd. The LP was now more of a Byrds record, country music through an LA cowboy filter, a full sound with crystal-clear harmonies. The sincerity & lack of irony retain Parsons’ cosmic American aspirations but this is till the follow-up to “Notorious Byrd Brothers”. Now there are re-mastered legacy editions, “Gram’s version” & you can take your choice. The original “Sweetheart…” is the record I grew up with, the one that I know & love.

The Byrds crossed the Atlantic for a European tour. In London a shared interest in  roots music & serious drugs led to Gram becoming close with Mick & Keith off of the Rolling Stones. The story goes that the Glimmer Twins persuaded Parsons that an imminent tour of segregated audiences in apartheid South Africa was really not cool & he left the Byrds just weeks before “Sweetheart…” was released. Perhaps more pertinent is a recording from the Piper Club in Rome. Gram steps forward to perform his songs while the majority of the set are those the audience know & love. This clip, accompanied by some great photos, shows the Byrds in fine form, the electric banjo of new recruit Doug Dillard is outstanding. The fledgling Byrd had travelled a long way to play rhythm guitar on “Mr Spaceman” &, I think, he knew that the poster was never going to read “Gram Parsons & the Byrds”.

 

 

I know, too much time spent on the convoluted story of the record when it should be, and is, all about the music. The Byrds did not invent country rock on “Sweetheart of the Rodeo”, my money is on the Everly Brothers but it could have been Hank Williams, country has always rocked. They were though, the first major act to bring this all this great music back home, to acknowledge a neglected tributary to contemporary music Before this record I had never heard Merle Haggard’s songs (“Life In Prison”), been aware of Cindy Walker’s songwriting talent (“Blue Canadian Rockies”) or of the wonder that is the Louvin Brothers (“The Christian Life”). In the following year Gram’s new group the Flying Burrito Brothers had released “The Gilded Palace of Sin”, Dylan’s “Nashville Skyline” came around, the Band were up on Cripple Creek & Johnny Cash’s “Live at Folsom Prison” LP was at the front of the stack. In 1968 the Byrds were still ahead of their time.