Since dropping out of her drama scholarship at the University of North Carolina and drawn by the songs of Seeger, Dylan and Baez to play the coffee shops of Greenwich Village during the 1960s folk boom, Emmylou Harris was in at the beginning of country rock, rose to country music fame in Nashville and blazed her own trail in americana. She has released 21 studio solo albums, 7 further albums with other artists, four live records not to mention various others. Dubbed “the Queen of Country” Harris has won fourteen out of 48 Grammy nominations as well as multiple awards from associations representing country, bluegrass and americana. This list includes albums made with other artists because she has written and performed with such a range of people that many of her solo releases could equally be regarded as collaborations. Inevitably, the order and content of any list calling itself “Essential” can be hotly contested. Nevertheless, what follows is intended to guide newcomers as well as a reminder for long-term fans of how Emmylou Harris, discovered by Gram Parsons at the dawn of country rock, pursued long country roads and climbed bluegrass mountains through her sensitive covers and own material.
Number 10: “Blue Kentucky Girl” (1979)
Departing from the country rock that began with Gram Parsons and ran throughout her first initial solo output, Harris took a more traditional country approach for her sixth album. Possibly a brave move at a time when country was becoming more polished and some would argue homogenised, ‘Blue Kentucky Girl’ is firmly grounded in the great names of country and bluegrass. Singing songs by country greats such as Hank Cochrane, Willie Nelson and Rodney Crowell, bluegrass royalty Flatt and Scruggs and the Louvin Brothers as well as harmonising with Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt leave the listener in no doubt as to where the Harris roots lie. Resisting the temptation of returning to her days with Parsons with ‘Hickory Wind’ here is the title track written by Johnny Mullins for Harris to blend her sublime country and bluegrass.
Number 9: “Trio” (1987)
Harris started the 1980s with bluegrass but the decade for her was defined by a string of country releases. So if country it is, then who better to join forces with than Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt as Harris did for their ‘Trio’ album? Each brought their own take on country, harmonising beautifully to give a nuanced, delicate rendition of classic country in sharp contrast to the deepening big Nashville sound. It came as no surprise to see ‘Trio’ go platinum. Harris leads on ‘The Pain of Loving You’ that Parton wrote with Porter Wagoner. It may be billed as country but this Appalachian opener sets up an album of the most spine-tingling duetting and harmonies.
Number 8: “Red Dirt Girl” (2000)
Regardless of genre, interpreting songs written by other artists has been the mainstay of Harris’s albums so far. ‘Red Dirt Girl’ deserves inclusion because she wrote or co-wrote eleven of the record’s twelve tracks. With Guy Clark she wrote ‘Bang The Drum Slowly’ in memory of her father, an officer in the Marine Corps. “I meant to ask you how you lived what you believed” gives way to, “There is peace tonight all over Arlington”. The album has the deeper, more reflective feel that characterises subsequent releases. The haunting arrangements first heard on ‘Wrecking Ball’ so perfectly complement her delicate yet versatile vocal range. The title track is as fine an example as any in this most complete of albums.
Number 7: “Roses In The Snow” (1980)
For her seventh studio album Harris shifted direction from country to bluegrass, a genre in which she found solace after Parson’s death. As the liner notes state very emphatically, “There probably couldn’t have been anything more radical for a country artist to do in 1980 than to release a bluegrass album”. The Louvin Brothers reappear with ‘You’re Learning’ and her harmonising with Ricky Skaggs on Ralph Stanley’s ‘Darkest Hour Is Just Before Dawn’ is as pure as the mountain air. The album’s highlights come in her interpretations with producer and husband, Brian Ahern, of ‘Wayfaring Stranger’, ‘Jordan’ and featured song, ‘Green Pastures’. Bryan Bowers adds so much with his autoharp. They even give Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘The Boxer’ a distinctly bluegrass twang.
Number 6: “Wrecking Ball” (1995)
As with Johnny Cash’s ‘American’ records, ‘Wrecking Ball’ took a similarly long stride for Harris away from the world of country music. From the glistening sparkle of the mountains she made an album of thickly atmospheric layers. This departure was down to producer Daniel Lanois and engineer Mark Howard. Guests range from Steve Earle to the harder edges of Larry Mullen Jr., Lucinda Williams and Neil Young although Kate & Anna McGarrigle preserve some folkier roots. Opener ‘Where Will I Be’ written with Lanois pulls the listener into these mists of sound that has to be listened to in a single sitting for full appreciation.
Number 5: “Old Yellow Moon” (2013)
Harris first worked with Crowell forty years previously. The idea of making an album together was almost as old but worth the wait. Once a member of The Hot Band, Crowell is the ideal singing partner for Harris. The album leans heavily towards their country heritage but what makes it special is that it could have popped up at any time during their four decades of making music. It is timeless as was the tour they did to support the album. Easy chat between old friends their love for these songs is palpable. Their first collaboration, ‘Bluebird Wine’ from ‘Pieces Of The Sky’ is there as are songs written by Crowell, Hank DeVito, Roger Miller and the featured song ‘Chase The Feeling’ by Kris Kristofferson. After all, what is music, if it is not all about feeling?
Number 4: “All I Intended To Be” (2008)
Her 20th studio solo album binds Emmylou Harris as a singer/songwriter to her country roots. The album makes it into the essentials list because it gives a very balanced presentation of both her own writing and her interpretations of others. Duetting with John Starling she wraps Billy Joe Shaver’s ‘Old Five and Dimers Like Me’ and Merle Haggard’s ‘Kern River’ in a warm blanket of comforting country. Of her own compositions she sings with Dolly Parton and Vince Gill on ‘Gold’ while Kenny Vaughan’s electric guitar swirls around the painfully sad selected track, ‘Take That Ride’. Listening to Harris with big names but on her own material adds yet another dimension to her work.
Number 3: “Pieces Of The Sky” (1975)
Though she had released a solo album, ‘Gliding Bird’, five years previously, Harris considers this her solo debut. Certainly ‘Pieces Of The Sky’ takes the alt country vibe of her time with Parsons towards a purer country style. Unsurprisingly, as the album contains mostly covers by Rodney Crowell, Merle Haggard, Dolly Parton and Billy Sherrill. ‘Boulder to Birmingham’ remains a mainstay of the live show and the record’s only example of Harris’s own writing, in partnership with Bill Danoff.
Number 2: “Emmylou Harris and The Nash Ramblers At The Ryman” (1992)
Vital to her many collaborations is the groups of musicians Harris gathered around her. A condition of signing to Warner Brothers subsidiary Reprise Records back in 1975 was that Harris needed to find a “hot band”. She did and as The Hot Band they were guitarist James Burton, pianist Glen Hardin, drummer John Ware, pedal steel guitarist Hank DeVito and from her time with Parsons, bassist Emory Gordy, Jr. Rodney Crowell also joined to duet with Harris and play rhythm guitar. The line-up changed frequently to the point that many who guested on her albums earned automatic membership of The Hot Band. Harris broke up The Hot Band in 1991 to form a more acoustic group she called The Nash Ramblers. They were Sam Bush on fiddle, mandolin and vocals, Roy Huskey, Jr. on bass and vocals, Larry Atamanuik on drums, Al Perkins on banjo, guitar, dobro and vocals, and Jon Randall on guitar, mandolin and vocals. Together they recorded this wonderful live album at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville that won a Grammy and raised $8m towards the venue’s restoration fund. Harris and The Nash Ramblers play a bluegrass that goes from the intimacy of a round on the porch to a full-blown hoedown. The record is a tribute to all those who once trod the Ryman boards and influenced Harris as she and The Nash Ramblers perform a sparkling set featuring songs by Steve Earle, Bill Monroe, Jack Clement and Tex Owens among many others. Here is ‘Get Up John’ by Bill Monroe, Marty Stuart and Jerry Sullivan that swings bluegrass onto the arm of gospel.
Number 1: “Luxury Liner” (1976)
For such a complete exposition of where Harris has come from and what turned out to be her future ‘Luxury Liner’ gets top billing. Don’t be caught in the middle of the road as opening title track, “Luxury liner, forty tons of steel” comes hurtling along. Written by Parsons, the song feels as if Harris is trying to move on herself. Which she is as three albums into her solo career, she is exploring new ground. Still recording songs by other artists she digs deeper into her country roots duetting with Nicolette Larson on AP Carter’s ‘Hello Stranger’. ’When I Stop Dreaming’ by Charles and Ira Louvin is such a delicate blend of bluegrass and gospel. Her version of Townes Van Zandt’s ‘Pancho And Lefty’ tugs the heartstrings vigorously but the selection goes to a close friend, Susanna Clark who wrote ‘I’ll Be Your San Antone Rose’.
Great article Lydon and a brave job to take on. My ten would include at least six of your selection and great to see the excellent ‘Live at the Ryman’ with the Nash Ramblers riding so high. Great selection.