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

Aug 8, 2001 at 4:00 am
How can I go about getting honest criticism on my singing and playing style? I am not interested in becoming a professional, but I do enjoy performing and would appreciate honest help or advice from someone who knows. -- Emmylou Harris, from a letter to Sing Out magazine in 1965

On a warm evening in the hill country, some 20 miles outside of Austin, Texas, Buddy Miller is pushing through his short opening set for Emmylou Harris. Miller will later direct Harris's band, Spyboy, through an astonishing set that comprises nearly the whole of her most recent album, Red Dirt Girl, and a dozen or so of what Emmylou calls her "brunette songs," the ones the audience -- members of which have come from as far as Nagadoches and Shreveport -- most hopes to hear. Austinites are a musically jaded lot, and though they may know Buddy Miller, their attention is not a given. He simply overpowers them, singing his guts out on every number and playing like he sold his soul to Robert Johnson. He picks up an acoustic for the most supple version of Tom T. Hall's "That's How I Got to Memphis" ever heard, then jumps back to his homemade electric guitar for "Love Match," a duet with Steve Earle from his last album, Cruel Moon. Emmylou walks onstage for the first time, the crowd flips, but she doesn't sing a note. She just picks up Buddy's acoustic and rocks out.

That's how cool Emmylou Harris is. "I'm one of a vanishing breed of Luddites," she says later. "I just got my first computer, but I got it to listen to baseball games online." When Miller takes his lead breaks, or when drummer Brady Blade and bassist Daryl Johnson get down together, she slips out of the spotlight, concentrating on her own rhythm guitar playing, never showboating, never playing the honky-tonk archangel the media has anointed her. She knows that of all the stellar bands she's fronted over the years, this one is capable of colors none other could find. She's not about to overshadow them.

Strange as it may seem, critics have often been skeptical of Harris' talents, attending as much to her lissome beauty and hairstyles as to her vision. She's often praised as a great harmony singer, which is just a backhanded dig at her lead singing, and in the recent Oxford American music issue, Geoffrey Himes calls her a "middling songwriter." Like her mentor Gram Parsons, Harris' background as a middle-class country outsider has often undermined her rightful place as one of country music's most important artists. She's fêted for the impeccable musicians she's employed over time, for the brilliant and obscure songs she's chosen to record, and for her tireless championing of left-of-center causes, such as the Ryman Auditorium, Campaign for a Landmine Free World and Townes Van Zandt. But Harris is so much more than a patron saint of greater talents and concerns. If Patsy Cline is the definitive singer's singer, Harris is the definitive senses' singer, though she's not just a vocalist of instinct. Play her version of Eddy Arnold's "You Don't Know Me" from her finest country album, Cowgirl's Prayer: You don't just hear the notes she hits and sometimes misses (and her range is remarkable: low and warm, high and quicksilver); your senses are filled with them as by food, drugs or sex. Her voice cracks like ice dropped into coffee, whirls upward and settles down, low and heady, in a kind of blissful desolation. You hear the words, "You don't know the one who dreams of you at night," and they're rendered terrifyingly complex by the "grain of the voice," in Roland Barthes' words: "the language lined with flesh, the patina of consonants, the voluptuousness of vowels, a whole carnal stereophony." A bit much? No, not for that voice, the one behind her demonic, harrowing version of Dylan's "Every Grain of Sand," the one that sounds like the way we all feel when depredation comes to visit.

That sound first truly emerged on Wrecking Ball, an album Harris once called her "weird" record; compared to her previous body of work, as eclectic as it's been -- she's done spit-and-polish bluegrass, mangy country rock, sweet folk, anthemic rock & roll, longneck honky-tonk -- it certainly is. Daniel Lanois' production -- in Harris' words "atmospheric but strangely rough and organic" -- took her places she hadn't been, but her voice and the songs she gathered (including as-yet-unrecorded masterpieces by Gillian Welch and the McGarrigle sisters) also took Lanois more deeply into American music than he'd ever gone.

But even with her participation in the ultra-traditionalist O Brother Where Art Thou? and Songcatcher projects, she isn't ready to look back down country roads. Her version of "Barbara Allen" on the Songcatcher soundtrack album is an improbable, triumphant, state-of-the-art soundscaping of the most archetypal of all folk songs. What Harris understands is that country artists like the Carter Family, Bill Monroe and Hank Williams didn't see (and couldn't have seen) themselves as traditionalists. The form of country music we now take for granted didn't really exist before them, and so every time they stepped before a microphone they experimented with the unknown. That's in large part why country audiences adored Hank Williams. He wasn't the father of anything to them: He was inventing a sound and writing songs they had only intimated in their dreams.

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.