NASHVILLE SKYLINE: Emmylou Harris’ Songbird a Gem

New Career Retrospective Boasts 78 Songs and 10 Videos

(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/ Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)

The new Emmylou Harris boxed set is an eloquent argument for the continuation of the CD format and the CD boxed set in particular. This set could not exist in a wispy, nebulous download form. It would have been even better in the LP format with big photos and longer liner notes and even more added-on goodies (and glorious analog sound). But I’m just glad we have it as it is. Sometimes you need a solid, hands-on vessel for precious works to be displayed in all their elegance.

To begin with, Emmylou Harris is one of the most special artists country music has been privileged to include among its ranks, although she was long ago shunned by mainstream country radio as being too country. That really doesn’t matter in the long run. Her music will endure.

Emmylou Harris: Songbird: Rare Tracks & Forgotten Gems, to be released Tuesday (Sept. 18), is a gem of a package. Four CDs worth of songs plus a DVD and a big fat booklet of text and pictures.

This is not a scrapbook thrown together of her greatest hits and then some. These are some tracks you may well have never heard or even known about. Hard to believe, but it’s been 11 years since the only previous Emmylou boxed set was released. That was Emmylou Harris: Portraits, a three-CD set that included 61 songs. In 2001, Anthology: The Warner/Reprise Years, a two-CD package, was released with 44 songs, including many singles and B-side non-album cuts. Throughout her career, Harris has usually displayed very astute song selection, as these packages demonstrate.

Interestingly, what to me may well be her strongest album, The Ballad of Sally Rose, is underrepresented on the three collection packages. “Sweet Chariot” is on Portraits, “Sweetheart of the Rodeo” is included on Songbird and “Rhythm Guitar” is on Anthology. I suspect she senses, rightly, that such albums as Sally Rose (and perhaps Thirteen, for that matter) stand best alone.

Her duets and trios are well represented here with artists including the late Gram Parsons, Willie Nelson, Beck, Steve Earle, Mark Knopfler, Waylon Jennings, Vince Gill, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Guy Clark, Kate & Anna McGarrigle, Carl Jackson, Sheryl Crow, the Pretenders, the Seldom Scene, John Starling, Rodney Crowell, George Jones, Randy Scruggs, Iris DeMent and Elvis Costello.

The previously unreleased tracks included on Songbird will garner the most initial attention, of course. Prominent among them are Guy Clark’s “Immigrant Eyes,” “Palms of Victory,” a “Softly and Tenderly” outtake with Linda Ronstadt and Dolly Parton and a duet with Patty Griffin on “Beyond the Blue.” The song “In the Garden” was cut for, but not included on, the soundtrack for the movie All the Pretty Horses. There’s also an outtake version of “Clocks” from the 1969 Gliding Bird recording sessions.

Video highlights include 1978 PBS Soundstage performances of “Blue Kentucky Girl” and “Satan’s Jewel Crown,” 1981 promotional videos of “Mr. Sandman” and “I Don’t Have to Crawl,” an Elvis Costello duet on “Love Hurts” from the Grand Ole Opry in 2005 and “Imagine” from CMT Crossroads in 2004.

I suspect there are some enduring artist lessons here. Like, to thine own self be true. Do not bend over to accommodate a record label’s demands for trendiness. Do not trade this week’s radio play for a lifetime’s musical legacy. Be glad your music can endure outside the tightly compressed MP3 format. Be glad that music can indeed live and breathe.