American Icon

Emmylou Harris keeps proving herself to be one of country music's most important artists

Harris has worked in just about every form of American popular music (save jazz), but now she seems intent on inventing her own; that means she's taking bigger risks. Red Dirt Girl, which won a Grammy for contemporary folk recording, is her first album of original material (save the Patty Griffin-penned "One Big Love") since 1985, when she released the musical memoir The Ballad of Sally Rose. Red Dirt Girl stuns, maddens, disappoints and consumes.

One writer called the sound "Emmylou-zak," and if the staccato drum machines, soupy bass and cathedral reverb don't always suit the songs, the sound is now her own. Though engineered and co-produced by Malcolm Burn (who also engineered Wrecking Ball), Red Dirt Girl is Emmylou's creation, a wide, dark river carrying prayers, memories, scorns, desires and intimations of disaster and revival. "I dreamed you were a pilgrim," she sings on "Michelangelo." "On a highway out alone to find the mother of your children/who were still unborn and waiting/in the wings of some desire abandoned long ago." The new songs distill all the themes with which she's been most obsessed over the years.

At the end of Cowgirl's Prayer she sang an obscure Leonard Cohen tune, "Ballad of a Runaway Horse": "The world is sweet, and the world is wide/and he's there where the light and the darkness divide." The "he" could be a stallion, a lover, a Christ, or a devil -- but mostly "he" is the muse, the source for song and singing, and Emmylou has been faithful to him for some 30 years. No singer of her generation has been so consistently fresh, so artistically in-tune, so dedicated to recording songs that repay listening. With more than 30 albums, you'd have to go back to her very first record -- the maudlin über-folky Gliding Bird, cut when Emmylou was barely legal -- to find even a single track that isn't searching for that mysterious place only music can take us.

This love letter to Harris began with her guitarist Buddy Miller; it should end with him as well. Miller's guitar tone has just the right blend of mud and glow, and his riffs have the same postmodern country blues as Richard Thompson's. His playing and singing are to Emmylou's what Emmylou's were to Gram Parsons': the marriage of two voices waiting all their lives to find each other. Miller will be opening for Emmylou again; she wouldn't want you to miss him.

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