17 December 2006
The Very Best of Emmylou Harris: Heartaches and Highways
Me, I was brought up in the vinyl era, when one was taught to hate “greatest hits” albums. The reasoning was sound. Greatest hits albums simply tear up an artist’s real albums and you are at the mercy of producers merely selecting tracts according to their whim.
But those were the days of vinyl. Now there is CD album format that can summarize an artist’s career: retrospectives on Billie Holliday, Sun House, and The Allman Brothers, John Fogerty, Robert Johnson, among many others.
Recently, in an album covering her career-long body of work, from a duet with Gram Parsons to a stunning new track with her original producer, Emmylou Harris’ Heartaches and Highways delivers the goods.
After the duet with Parsons, Emmylou does an elegy to his untimely passing. With “Boulder to Birmingham” we see the beginning, along with Willie and Waylon and the boys, of modern alternative country music. Harris precousiously co-wrote this song, a musical tribute to Parsons -- her songwriting did not fully blossom until almost 20 years later.
Then, right away, another classic.
I consider Townes VanZant’s “Pancho and Lefty” one of the greatest songs ever written. Here, Harris takes this ballad and turns the story to gossamer. Her voice on this melody makes you forget you are listening to lines like:
[Pancho’s] horse was fast as polished steel,
He wore his guns outside his pants,
For all the honest world to feel …
The dust that Pancho bit down South,
Ended up in Lefty’s mouth.”
The singer and the listener must both work to stay with the story.
One album this collection does not do justice to, in importance, is “Wrecking Ball” – this album marked her consummate “song miner” achievement which began her first really serious move into songwriting.
There’s an old yarn about George Jones and Keith Richards during a duet recording session together, late in Jones’ career. When George arrived, he first greeted Keith across a full bar that Richards had set up for their mutual comfort. Though Richards didn’t know it, by this time in his career Jones had quit drinking, and both musicians had a big laugh over Keith handing George a mixed drink as they met.
The range of George Jones’ influence, from “Keef” to Emmylou, is clear here as Ms. Harris includes two songs Jones recorded first. Emmylou does both “Together Again” and also “Beneath Still Waters” as “pure country”, though heavy on the rhythm guitar and world class harmony vocals.
In sum: Back in the late 70’s, when it came to seasoned white girls slogging it out on the crossover R&B circuit, Bonnie Raitt and Emmylou Harris were it. Both artists continue, to this day, to refine music crafts they grew up on.
Heartaches and Highways tries to sum up her career with songs. But there’s a better way to sum up her career: she’s been everywhere working with everybody for 30 years.
Emmylou is a thread in the tapestry that Carole King started o’ so long ago.