(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)
Five of Emmylou Harris’s albums are being re-released by Warner/Reprise/Rhino on Tuesday (Feb. 24), and that’s reason for celebration. Harris has been a pioneering and influential creator of modern country music and these particular albums are pivotal in her history and in that of county music.
She’s been a groundbreaking artist in many roles: singer, performer, bandleader, songwriter, activist, musicologist, song picker and role model. In exploring country’s ties to pop, rock, folk, gospel and blues and in safeguarding country’s traditions and bringing them to a larger world, Harris has long been a standard bearer for integrity and for innovation in country music.
Harris has never been one to remain static or content with her art, and these albums from the 1970s depict an artist growing and maturing at a rapid rate. These were her first five studio albums (the compilation Profile/Best of Emmylou Harris was also released during this period), and they cover her career and life from 1975’s debut Pieces of the Sky through 1979’s Blue Kentucky Girl. You can see a dramatic career being built along the way and an emerging foundation for innovative music.
After a series of stops and starts as a solo folk singer in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Harris found her métier in a musical partnership with the late alt.country/country rock pioneer Gram Parsons. She accompanied him on his GP and Grievous Angel albums, and their ethereal work together remains a benchmark in the alt.country timeline. After Parsons’ death in 1973, Harris regrouped, formed the Angel Band and moved from the D.C. area to Los Angeles.
Although she had earlier recorded a minor first work for Jubilee Records, her solo career is considered to begin with 1975’s Pieces of the Sky. It was undoubtedly the first country album ever recorded in a house in Beverly Hills (with the Enactron Truck mobile studio in the driveway). Musicians were a dream team, including the Eagles’ Bernie Leadon, Neil Young’s steel player Ben Keith and such Elvis band stalwarts as James Burton, Glen D. Hardin and Ron Tutt.
She pioneered country’s new traditionalist movement here, especially by recording “If I Could Only Win Your Love.” In turning that song into a Top 10 country hit, she single-handedly revived the song catalog of the Louvin Brothers (and she was mightily vindicated just days ago when the Louvin tribute album Livin’, Lovin’, Losin’ claimed a Grammy as country album of the year). Her song selection here reflected her lifelong defiance of musicals trends: besides the Louvin song, she picked the Beatles’ “For No One,” Dolly Parton’s “Coat of Many Colors,” Merle Haggard’s “The Bottle Let Me Down,” a couple of Dallas Frazier stone country songs, the Felice and Boudleaux Bryant classic “Sleepless Nights” and her own elegy to Parsons with “Boulder to Birmingham.”
And in selecting Rodney Crowell’s “Bluebird Wine” from demo tapes to cut for this album, she began a long partnership with the emerging singer-songwriter, who later anchored her Hot Band. And that band has included some other hot musicians over the years, from Vince Gill to Ricky Skaggs to Tony Brown.
For her second album Elite Hotel — also cut in Beverly Hills — Harris’ song selection was again unerring. Buck Owens’ 1964 hit “Together Again” became her first No. 1 country hit. Don Gibson’s “Sweet Dreams” from 1956 was soon her second No. 1. The Parsons/Chris Hillman song “Sin City” became a cult classic. Crowell’s “Till I Gain Control Again” was on its way to stardom. Elite Hotel itself went to No. 1 on the Billboard country albums chart.
Luxury Liner in 1977 showed Harris and her Hot Band at their peak. The album was No. 1 for 8 weeks in Billboard, in the Outlaw era of Willie and Waylon. And it shows a young woman gaining confidence, sure in her musical choices, able to mix a Chuck Berry early rock song “(You Never Can Tell) C’est La Vie” with the early Carter Family song “Hello Stranger” and blend that with another Louvin Brothers chestnut, “When I Stop Dreaming.” Add to the mix the doomed prophet Townes Van Zandt’s brilliant “Pancho & Lefty” (long before Willie and Merle made it a hit in 1983), Kitty Wells’ eerie 1955 hit “Making Believe” with Skaggs on potent fiddle and works by Crowell and Parsons, and you have the working recipe for what will always constitute Americana or alt.country or progressive country or roots music or whatever it will ever be called.
On Quarter Moon in a Ten Cent Town in 1978, Crowell left Harris two gems, “I Ain’t Living Long Like This” and “Leaving Louisiana in the Broad Daylight,” before striking out to work with future wife Rosanne Cash. Parton’s lovely “To Daddy” played delicately off Texas roadhouse rocker Delbert McClinton’s “Two More Bottles of Wine,” which gave Harris another No. 1 single.
Blue Kentucky Girl in 1979 became her most country work to date, in part perhaps due to purists’ criticisms that Harris had purposely aimed Quarter Moon at chart success (a quaint notion these days). The Hot Band here melded Skaggs’ bluegrass work with hot electric guitar from British guitarist Albert Lee and James Burton, and Hardin’s piano. This is a song lovers’ paradise, with the likes of Parsons’ “Hickory Wind,” the Louvins’ “Everytime You Leave,” Frazier’s “Beneath Still Waters,” Willie Nelson’s “Sister’s Coming Home” and Jean Ritchie’s “Sorrow in the Wind.” Like the previous four albums, this was recorded in the rented Beverly Hills mansion that had become home to Harris and her producer Brian Ahern, whom she’d married in 1977.
All of these albums have been remastered and expanded with additional cuts, which are nice (and they have lower CD prices, too). But this body of work remains vitally important because it represents an island of musical sanity and transition when, all around Emmylou, country’s trend makers were first trying to jump on the Outlaw bandwagon and then rushing to embrace a sappy and softheaded world of songs that soon found its soft focus with the Urban Cowboy era.
And all this happened with Emmylou before 1980, before the other careers and successes she’s had since then.