Choice selections from reigning Queen of American Music's canon get second, glorious look
Great voices create civilizations. They sing, compose, interpret, collect and appropriate living words, offering them up in songs be?tting the occasions, events and epochs in the stories they sing. The great voices lyricize reality. They tell us what happened, what’s going on, and how it all feels. As Shakespeare put it, they give to an otherwise airy nothingness a local habitation, a name and a way of looking at our own life together.
By now, no self-respecting listener of English-language music should require a persuasive word when it comes to the majesty of Emmylou Harris. Like Johnny Cash or Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen, she is not of an age, but for all time. Now, with Songbird: Rare Tracks and Forgotten Gems, we’re made to understand that her awesome stature as a vocalist is part and parcel with her career as a lyrical archivist whose own songwriting is seamlessly connected to her role as a faithful steward of other people's songs. Her voice gives life to other voices, creating new contexts for people’s stories to be told. Her records make a record of the times. Her songs are a summons to research. Her music bears witness.
This 78-track retrospective, it must be said, is only the tip of the iceberg (one longs for her celebrated take on Donna Summer’s “On the Radio,” or Sinead O’Connor’s “This Is To Mother You”), but it’s the tip of the iceberg according to Emmylou. It’s as if the shifting logic and personnel of record companies ?nally gave light of day to the treasures with which they were entrusted. “Important gems in the string of pearls that each album strives to become,” Harris calls them.
Never programmed to practice the music of the country as “country music,” she was never made to do it “the right way,” as she puts it. This freed her to make music the way that felt right to her. Beginning with a 1969 recording of "Clocks," introducing us to the "funny little people dancing ’round my head,” we’re dropped into a wide-open space of democratic dignity where stirring renditions of The Louvin Brothers’ “Satan’s Jewel Crown” and Bruce Springsteen’s “My Father’s House” can reside next to live footage of a performance of John Lennon’s “Imagine.” She’s drawn to any and all primal longing, and Songbird covers a wide range of melancholy; all of it thick with human-interest stories.
Hearing “Prayer in Open D” or Julie Miller’s “All My Tears” (included here in the Spyboy versions) it’s odd to imagine Harris—as a very young woman who sang Dylan’s “To Ramona” over and over again—writing to Pete Seeger to share her fear that she’d known too little hardship to sing songs of lament and suffering with conviction. Seeger wrote her back and assured her that a hard time or two was likely just around the corner.
She credits Gram Parsons with giving her "whatever is unique in my voice" but the statement is belied by a moving version of Bill and Taffy Danoff's "Falling In A Deep Hole" (heretofore unreleased, Harris has no memory of the recording, but it predates her introduction to Parsons). Longtime listeners will also be overjoyed to hear a Daniel Lanois-produced version of “In The Garden,” originally recorded for the All The Pretty Horses soundtrack.
Like most musical luminaries whose work is associated with the country genre, the country-music industry has often responded to her best work with ambivalence at best and, at worst, blatant disregard. Back in 1975, long before “alt.country” became all the rage, Harris was recording Beatles songs and receiving a chilly critical response (“For No One” from Pieces of the Sky is included here). And while Nashville almost turned a blind eye to the proposed demolition of the historic Ryman Auditorium (now touted as the Mecca of country music), Harris recorded a live album there (“Get Up John” and “If I Could Be There” from 1992’s At The Ryman also appear). The record is widely credited with waking up Music City to its own legacy.
Songbird reminds us of the scope of Harris’ creativity and how it’s always connected to her magnanimity, her deep affections and her deep concerns. Great music always defies genres. It won’t be boundaried by marketing categories. And the big music of Emmylou includes Dolly Parton, Beck, George Jones, Chrissie Hynde, Linda Ronstadt, Steve Earle and Johnny Cash. The sad, sweet old cosmos she channels, song after song, continues to defy commodification.