NASHVILLE SKYLINE: Emmylou Harris Keeps On Keepin’ On

Her New Hard Bargain Music Is Still Driving

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

The recent death of the pioneering bluegrass singer and songwriter Hazel Dickens underscores the shortage in country music of such strong women. It also emphasizes the importance and value of such women.

Dickens was much more than a gifted songwriter with a high, lonesome sound. She was an outspoken feminist and an unafraid pro-union activist.

There are still, fortunately, present-day women singers and songwriters with strong viewpoints, even if they are more committed to musical and social commentary than to political activism. To cite just a few, I begin with Dolly Parton, who has probably done more to promote literacy than any single individual, with her Imagination Library campaign.

There is Patty Loveless with her purity of voice and her songs about Appalachia. There is Kathy Mattea with her pungent commentaries about coal mining. Martina McBride‘s songs against domestic abuse have discovered a wide audience. Faith Hill has championed disaster relief. Lori McKenna can dissect human emotions in a song with her skilled scalpel. Matraca Berg is as fine a songwriter as you can find working in any genre. Check out Kenny Chesney‘s next single, which Matraca co-wrote with Deana Carter, “You and Tequila.” Berg’s first album in 14 years, The Dreaming Fields, is set for release May 17. There are other such memorable women.

But the pre-eminent woman in country these days — in my opinion — is Emmylou Harris. As a Country Music Hall of Fame member, singer, songwriter and bandleader, she has no equal.

As a bandleader, she led the Hot Band and the Nash Ramblers, both stellar groups. Her musical retinues included such modern music masters as James Burton, Rodney Crowell, Jon Randall, Tony Brown, Hank DeVito, Albert Lee, Ricky Skaggs and Sam Bush.

When I polled female members of my household about why Emmylou is important, this was the consensus response: “She’s honest. She’s our link to the past, to our continuity. And she has class.”

When the Ryman Auditorium sat empty and decaying for years after the Grand Ole Opry abandoned downtown Nashville for the suburbs in 1974, Harris had it reopened in 1991 to record her live album Emmylou Harris and the Nash Ramblers at the Ryman. She fostered a movement to pressure Gaylord Entertainment, the landlord, to reopen and restore the historic 19th century tabernacle and landmark. It reopened in 1994 and today is one of the world’s leading musical venues.

She had country radio hits for many years, with seven No. 1 hit singles on the Billboard chart.

Then country radio dropped her. In all, she had charted 54 country singles. Her last Top 10 single came in 1988. Harris did not leave country music. Country music left her.

I’ve had more than one DJ tell me, in private, that country radio made a sort of collective, unspoken decision to drop her from airplay — just as the same age-based judgment was directed at the likes of Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings. The reason in her case? Her voice was too distinctive. It was a distraction from the rest of the aural wallpaper coming out of the speakers. And her songs required careful listening. That’s not something you want to demand of a radio listener who wants some good-time background soundtrack. In other words, she was serving up fine champagne in a cheap beer joint. Along the way, she both defined and defied traditional country music. She became the standard, against whom any new young woman singer needed to be measured.

Since her exile from country radio, she’s yielded a number of fine works. Her new album, Hard Bargain, is like a fine wine. Exquisite, sometimes brittle, yet overall very brisk and welcoming. She wrote or co-wrote nine of the 11 songs, and if you’ve followed Harris’ career, you know that writing has never come easy for her. And she tends to not wear her heart on her sleeve.

Especially memorable new Harris compositions here are “The Road” and “Darlin’ Kate,” two overtly personal songs that serve as farewell to two of her closest friends. “Darlin’ Kate” fondly remembers her friend Kate McGarrigle of the McGarrigle Sisters. “The Road,” about her experiences with the departed Gram Parsons, her early musical partner and inspiration, is especially moving. She sings, “I can still remember every song you played/Long ago when we were younger and we rocked the night away/How could I see the future then where you would not grow old/With such a fire in our belly, such a hunger in our soul.”

And she can still turn a wicked phrase, as shown by “To cut and run ain’t in our blood” in the song “New Orleans,” which — for Harris — is a real rocker. As a bonus, she rhymes “hurricane” with “Pontchartrain.” Throughout the album, her seemingly frail yet surprisingly sturdy voice always seems to sail effortlessly above the fray.

There will likely never again be another Hazel Dickens. History and the times and social conditions shaped her. But there could be worthy successors, especially those in the mold of an Emmylou Harris.