Album Review

Emmylou Harris - Portraits

Emmylou Harris - Portraits

Poor Emmylou Harris. Not that she cares, probably, but a generation of music writers, including me, have at one time or another written about Harris as if she were a footnote -- albeit a major one -- to the career of Gram Parsons. Acknowledging the relationship is one thing, but for 20 years Harris has deserved to move out of her mentor's shadow. Aside from the Cosmic Cowboy's astute early sponsorship and stylistic steerage, Harris' career has been built entirely on her talents. Since Parsons' death in 1973, she's managed the remarkable feat of releasing two dozen albums and being accepted into the elite Nashville establishment that eluded Parsons during his brief but intense attempt at a country-rock fusion. Portraits, a three-CD box from Reprise that chronicles Harris' years with the label, announces her own legacy once and for all. The set serves as a good-bye-gift to the singer, whose first album for Asylum, her new label, was the stylistic departure Wrecking Ball, produced by Daniel Lanois with his gauzy sonic stamp. After years of acceptance in Nashville, she's consciously trying to find a new audience. But Portraits is an album of audio snapshots that reveals a remarkably consistent aesthetic vision, one she shared with Parsons but molded to her own instincts. And, of course, Portraits also captures That Voice. It's deeper now, and a little huskier, but it still has the quavering purity that grabbed listeners with the first notes of "Boulder to Birmingham" off her 1975 Reprise debut Pieces of the Sky. Harris had the voice of that proverbial honky-tonk angel without the corniness that the country women of the time, including Dolly Parton, were burdened with. And when you saw her cosmic desert hippie-lady outfit on the follow-up LP of the same year, Elite Hotel, you knew she wouldn't be on "Hee Haw" anytime soon, and that was a good thing. She was a country singer for rock 'n' rollers, one who found herself winning over country fans without ever changing her style. Though she initially fancied herself as a nascent urban folkie in the Sylvia Tyson mold, she was introduced to the rowdiness of rock and the heartbreak of country by Parsons, who may have heard the embodiment of his musical vision in her voice. Her clear harmony singing supported his wavering pitch and added a backwoods authenticity to his music. That authenticity has always been reflected in her respect for traditional music, and her career-long base in country's folk and bluegrass roots is her legacy as much as anyone's. When you hear mandolins and fiddles alongside steel guitars in a country song, remember Emmylou Harris had something to do with it. Some of the coolest musicians in the young Nashville set of the late '70s and early '80s, including ace songwriter Rodney Crowell, guitar legend Albert Lee and bluegrass sensation Ricky Skaggs, spent time in Harris' legendary Hot Band of those years. But her first solo album came out a year and a half after Parsons' death, at a time when Nashville's hitmaking factory was cranking out schmaltz and novelty like "Convoy" and "Rhinestone Cowboy". There wasn't much cool about Nashville then, except for Harris, who was hardly "Nashville": She didn't even move to Tennessee until the mid-'80s. Pieces of the Sky carried on Parsons' vision, but with her rootsier sensibility (hence her country top-10 hit "If I Could Only Win Your Heart") and song choice. She dutifully and reverentially covered Parsons' music for several more albums, but eventually established a pool of gifted songwriters, such as Crowell and Kate & Anna McGarrigle, who lent their rich songbooks to Harris' canon. While she's not a songwriter (though she co-wrote "Boulder to Birmingham"), Harris is one of the premier song interpreters of her time. Whether she's breathing new life into a classic like the Carter Family's "Hello Stranger", rocking out on Gram Parsons' little-heard "Luxury Liner" or covering any number of contemporary pop, rock and folk songwriters from James Taylor to Paul Simon to Nanci Griffith to Richard Thompson, she makes the song worth hearing again. Over the years, Harris been accused of being too much of a technician (I've done it myself), but this set showcases her ability simply to connect with great songs. Close your eyes and sink into her telling of Townes Van Zandt's "Pancho & Lefty": she's a terrific storyteller. Her work in the '80s consolidated her position as one of the cornerstones of the new country music industry. She earned a place in the pantheon alongside mainstream goddesses of rock and pop such as Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt (with whom Harris recorded the acoustic harmony album Trio). But her work kept its base in bluegrass and folk traditions throughout. Portraits also displays Harris' natural ability to weave her voice around other singers in the many collaborations it gathers together. Parsons of course is included, but there are also tracks with Parton and Ronstadt, Roy Orbison ("That Lovin' You Feeling Again"), Don Williams (Van Zandt's "If I Needed You"), The Band ("Evangeline", recorded for the film The Last Waltz), Willie Nelson (Nanci Griffith's lovely "Gulf Coast Highway") and Flaco Jimenez (a rollicking cover of Butch Hancock's "West Texas Waltz"). Near the end of the final CD, Portraits culls several tracks from the 1992 live album At The Ryman, which showcased Harris' singing backed by the acoustic Nash Ramblers, led by John Starling, a longtime friend from Harris' folkie salad days in Washington, D.C. Pushed by Starling's fabulous vocal arrangements on such tracks as the century-old (but, eerily, still timely) Stephen Foster chestnut "Hard Times", Harris really shines. And she's not standing in anyone's shadow. The one big disappointment with the set: The liner notes desperately needed an editor to temper some of its fawning, and to add some niceties like a discography or track-by-track musician listings. But, such nitpicking aside, the music spread throughout the three discs easily outweighs the package's shortcomings.
Artist Emmylou Harris
Album Portraits
Label Reprise
Author Gil Asakawa
Other tags Issue #07