At the start of her post Gram Parsons solo career, Emmylou Harris was known more as an interpreter of songs than as a songwriter, though she had penned a number of the songs on her earlier 1969 debut album.
In more recent years she has become a songwriter of considerable renown, recognised for her ability to convey honest emotion in a simple and straightforward way. That ability was first widely apparent way back in 1975 when, writing with singer/songwriter Bill Danoff, Harris finally sat down to put her grief at the loss of her friend and mentor, Gram Parsons, into a song. It was a rare foray, at that time, into songwriting and Danoff would seem a strange partner to choose for such a personal song, but the two artists knew each other from the Washington DC music scene, where Harris had been working as a folk singer prior to teaming up with Parsons, and Danoff had a clever way with a melody, having written hits for John Denver, including ‘Take Me Home, Country Roads’ (Danoff’s greatest success would come a year or so after the release of “Pieces the Sky”, the Emmylou Harris album that carried ‘Boulder to Birmingham’, when he would write the somewhat cloying ‘Afternoon Delight’ for his own group, the Starland Vocal Band).
While much of the melody clearly came from Danoff, you can hear the similarities with some of the Denver songs in the chord structure, the lyrics would seem to be Emmylou all the way. She has said that learning of Parson’s death was “like falling off a mountain” and it is one of the most openly emotional songs about grieving that I’ve ever encountered. Rightly, people always talk about the chorus when they discuss this song.
“I would rock my soul in the bosom of Abraham / I would hold my life in his saving grace / I would walk all the way from Boulder to Birmingham / If I thought I could see, I could see your face”
It’s powerful stuff and it’s easy to see why many have claimed that hearing this has helped them to come to terms with their own loss of a loved one. The imagery is strong, ‘Rock My Soul In the Bosom of Abraham’ is an old spiritual song that calls for comfort in troubled times and invoking that concept gives an idea of the grieving that comes from the loss of Parsons but, for me, it’s that third line that’s particularly strong. People often imagine the extremes they might go to in order to see someone they loved, and lost, again. That chorus gives the listener a very definite idea of what they might endure. Boulder, Colorado, is 1,311 miles from Birmingham, Alabama, and to walk it would take something in the region of 20 days. It would be a hard slog, but it would be achievable and is something tangible to be imagined, a pilgrimage almost. It’s something she would do if she thought she might see him again – a promise you make to yourself in the hope it might achieve something, even while you know that person is gone and isn’t coming back. It’s also a line that’s a clever hook for the song, ‘Boulder to Birmingham’ has a resonant sound and is a lyric, and title, that sticks in the memory.
The verses are equally powerful but in a different way. There’s a resigned world-weariness to the verses, a recognition that life goes on as before for most, but for the writer, things have changed.
“I don’t want to hear a love song / I got on this airplane just to fly / And I know there’s life below me / But all that you can show me is the prairie and the sky”
There’s a feeling of numbness, a sense that her emotions are so overloaded that she’s working on autopilot, just trying to get through each day. And there’s that crushing payoff in the final verse, “And the hardest part is knowing I’ll survive”, the toughest part of any loss – knowing they are gone but, somehow, you need to keep on living. It’s a bleak masterpiece of a song, conveying perfectly the depth of feeling on losing a close friend.
Over the years there have been a number of very credible covers of this song, including ones from Dolly Parton, The Byrds, Joan Baez and, more recently, Jessie Buckley in the film ‘Wild Rose’, but none of them are as achingly beautiful as Emmylou’s own version. She would come back to write about the loss again with a veiled tribute in her song ‘Michelangelo’ from 2000’s “Red Dirt Girl” and then with more obvious reference on ‘The Road’ from 2011’s “Hard Bargain”, but ‘Boulder to Birmingham’ will always be the Emmylou Harris song about the loss of her friend and guiding star, the man who put her on the road to her own success as a singer and songwriter.