Week 18: Emmylou Harris and the perfection problem
A.V. Club head writer and hip-hop specialist Nathan Rabin recently decided to spend a year or two immersing himself in the canon of country music, a genre he knew little about, but was keen to explore. The result: “Nashville Or Bust,” a series of essays about seminal country artists. After 52 entries, Rabin plans to travel south and explore some of country music’s most hallowed landmarks and institutions.
When I began this project, I wondered if (or when) country music would stop feeling like alien territory, exhilarating in its novelty, and begin to feel like home. I think I reached that tipping point when I looked at the track listing of Emmylou Harris’ stellar first three major-label solo albums and recognized a third of the songs. There was something comforting about seeing the familiar names of sturdy old chestnuts by the Louvin Brothers, Dolly Parton, and Merle Haggard.
Country music is still relatively foreign ground for me, but its terrain is beginning to look familiar. It’s a melancholy realm of honky-tonks and heartbreak, hickory winds and neon bar signs where Bob Wills is still the King, Hank Williams is God, and George Jones is at least a minor deity, or possibly the Pope.
During adolescence, the music you listen to helps define who you are, or at least who you want to be. That’s why teenagers carry backpacks and Trapper Keepers festooned with stickers and hastily scrawled logos swearing their eternal allegiance to AC/DC or Nirvana or whatever it is the young people listen to today. The Jonas Brothers? NKOTB? Writing constantly about pop culture for The A.V. Club paradoxically keeps me from noticing a lot of what’s going on in pop culture.
So it's a strange, satisfying feeling to fall in love with an entirely new genre of music at age 33, to find your hopes, dreams, aspirations, and frustrations reflected in the words of long-dead troubadours and grizzled survivors with decades of bad behavior, failed marriages, and self-sabotage in their rearview mirrors.
In “Hank And Lefty”, a bonus track from the re-release of Emmylou Harris’ 1975 disc Pieces Of The Sky, she sings wistfully of Hank Williams, “We never met, Ol’ Hank, but we was awful close.” Who hasn’t known that feeling, that sneaky, secret sense of solidarity with our favorite artists? Who hasn’t felt a profound connection with a cherished singer or songwriter that transcends time, space, class, and culture?
That’s how I felt when I discovered Gram Parsons’ seminal albums with Emmylou Harris. How could I have gone my entire life without hearing this music? What kind of cosmic motherfuckery could lead to such a grievous oversight? Listening to Parsons’ two solo albums, GP and Grievous Angel, I felt a sense of instant intimacy. It felt right, right away.
For Harris, being reintroduced to country music by Parsons must have felt the same way. Harris grew up in the South, the overachieving daughter of a Marine who spent time in a POW camp after getting shot down in Korea. She was a straight-A student, a cheerleader, and a nascent bohemian wilting in the small-town conformity of the South.
Harris did an awful lot of living before she met Parsons. She released a botched 1970 solo album that combined a version of Hank Williams’ “I Saw The Light” with covers of Bob Dylan and Burt Bacharach, plus self-penned ditties with titles like “Fugue For The Ox” and “Waltz Of The Magic Man.” Harris had been married and divorced. She’d had a baby. She’d been a denizen of the Greenwich Village folk scene and known her share of personal and professional disappointments.
But it was really all just a prelude to meeting Parsons, an old folkie who schooled her on the beauty and simplicity of traditional country music, on the poetry and pathos of George Jones and the spooky intensity of the Louvin Brothers.
In a sense, Parsons was reintroducing Harris to her own heritage, since she grew up on country throughout her tragically non-misspent youth. One might even go so far as to say that Hank and Lefty raised her country soul. I’ve written extensively about Harris and Parsons' collaboration elsewhere, so I will limit my observations here to arguing that there are five steps to becoming a country legend. They are, in order:
- Suffer some more
- Continue suffering
- Suffer through a horrible divorce related to your epic substance-abuse problems and preternatural gift for self-destruction
- Die an agonizing death, then enjoy posthumous martyrdom
Growing up tragically functional, sane, and well-developed, Harris was at a terrible disadvantage when it came to pursuing country glory. But losing Parsons to an overdose gave her music the pain endemic to all great country.
After her mentor’s death, Harris was left to carry on his legacy, to fulfill his vision of a “Cosmic American Music” melding folk, rock, country, and pop. She was burdened and blessed with living for Parsons.
It feels wrong to write about music in the third person sometimes, because the way we experience music is so inherently subjective and personal. We each bring a million quirks and subconscious prejudices to everything we hear. I resisted Harris in the early stages of this project because I have a problem with perfection and purity. It’s easier for me to identify with beasts than beauties. I like my pop-culture heroes to be as dysfunctional, damaged, and half-crazy as myself. There’s something humanizing and accessible about the dysfunction of country’s pantheon of great fuck-ups.
Parsons was all too human, but Harris has always seemed angelic. That was essential to their chemistry: Harris’ flawlessness perfectly complemented Parsons’ raging imperfection. There is a beauty, elegance, and understatement to Harris’ singing that's spellbinding, yet oddly distancing.
Harris’ 1975 album Pieces Of The Sky picks up exactly where 1974’s Grievous Angel (which Parsons wanted co-credited to Harris) left off. Harris borrowed guitarist James Burton and pianist Glen Hardin from Elvis Presley’s TCB band on an album that further refined and perfected the lean, straight-ahead, timeless sound of Parsons’ last two.
Harris proves a strong yet malleable presence. On Rodney Crowell’s “Bluebird Wine” and Shel Silverstein’s “Queen Of The Silver Dollar,” she channels Dolly Parton's good-old-girl sass for a rollicking celebration of letting loose and getting drunk on cheap hooch, and a tongue-in-cheek tribute to a monarch of a honky-tonk, respectively. On the heartbreaking ballad “Boulder To Birmingham,” she’s the dignified professional widow mourning the death of Parsons, whose music and legacy would forever be intertwined with her own. Harris returns to the unadorned simplicity of her Greenwich Village days on an unapologetically folkie take on The Beatles’ “For No One.”
Harris paid homage to Parsons on Sky’s “Boulder To Birmingham.” On Elite Hotel, also released in 1975, Harris established her musical pedigree by covering Parsons’ “Sin City,” “Wheels,” and “Ooh Las Vegas” in ways that both connected her to her lost past and established a blueprint for her future. Harris’ haunting, spare version of “Sin City” is particularly revelatory; she replaces some of the wicked irony and dark humor of Parsons’ version with sadness and emotional directness.
Crucial to Harris’ burgeoning aesthetic was her version of what she referred to semi-sarcastically as “regressive country” (to differentiate it from “progressive country,” a label she and Parsons considered condescending). Harris’ first three post-Parsons albums could have been recorded any time during the last 40 years; there’s nothing dated about them. Everything is tasteful, subtle, and restrained. Nothing distracts from the purity of Harris’ voice. Like Pieces Of The Sky, Elite Hotel pays homage to Harris’ folk and rock roots with a lovely cover of “Here, There And Everywhere” that crossed over to the pop charts.
By 1976, Harris had graduated from playing Bob Dylan covers in Greenwich Village coffeehouses to singing backup for Dylan on 1976’s Desire. Harris’ fame and popularity were spreading; she was achieving the kind of mainstream success and acceptance never afforded Parsons. Harris broke through conclusively with 1977’s Luxury Liner, which takes its title, appropriately enough, from a train song written by Gram Parsons during his International Submarine Band days.
Luxury Liner’s apex is the first and perhaps definitive cover of “Pancho And Lefty,” one of the greatest country songs ever written. It’s a starkly beautiful narrative contrasting the fates of a bandit named Pancho and his turncoat associate Lefty. Townes Van Zandt’s haunting morality tale offers two competing visions of hell: the agony of being cut down in your prime vs. the torment of decades of regret.
The song went to number one when covered by Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard, but Harris’ version is infinitely superior. A victim of tacky, overwrought ’80s production, the intro to Nelson and Haggard’s “Pancho And Lefty” sounds like the theme music for a bad detective show, with Nelson as laconic Detective Petey “Pancho” Villa and Haggard as his partner “Lefty” Jones, plus Waylon Jennings as the boys’ short-tempered sergeant and Billy Joe Shaver as a drunken police informant.
Harris’ stripped-down take, in sharp contrast, finds the vivid poetry in lines like “Now you wear your skin like iron / your breath as hard as kerosene.” Harris has referred to herself self-deprecatingly as nothing more than a “collector of songs,” but here, she gives a master class in interpretation. With the very first cover of “Pancho And Lefty,” she’d already established a gold standard.
Harris revisits her back pages with a powerful take on “She,” a standout track from GP, the album where it all began for Harris. I initially resisted Harris because of her seeming lack of imperfections, but her unadorned singing perfectly suits her and Parsons’ vision of country stripped down to its melancholy core.
For some reason it took a rich-kid orange-juice heir from Florida obsessed with The Rolling Stones and a beautiful ex-folkie with cheekbones that offer conclusive evidence of a benevolent deity to remind the Nashville establishment how to make traditional country music in the ’70s.
Next up on Nashville Or Bust: