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Music Review: Emmylou Harris – Hard Bargain

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We’ve all got stories. Through life’s winding turns and harrowing twists, our experiences draw on who we are as human beings. We weave these tales throughout our existence, whether through something seemingly trivial like a trip to the store or something more profound like the passing of a loved one. We feel complex, sometimes lost and sometimes found. Sometimes somewhere else entirely. And as we try our best to record these stories in the language of our understanding, we feel whole for a minute or two.

Few weave stories like Emmylou Harris. Her Hard Bargain is a collection of tales that can make us feel whole again.

It’s stunning to consider that Harris wasn’t always known as a great songwriter. Yet like many of us, the great beast of creativity that dwells within sometimes waits far too long before it rears up. In the case of this Alabama-born legend, the beast came about with The Ballad of Sally Rose. And after Wrecking Ball, Harris dove right in and brought her songwriting chops to the fore with albums like Red Dirt Girl and Stumble Into Grace.

In the case of Hard Bargain, simple storytelling is the name of the game. Harris draws on a deceptively basic set of words, concocting songs of experience and passion that only a performer with her life could craft. She’s sung with Gram Parsons, Neil Young, Dolly Parton, Willie Nelson, Bob Dylan, Mark Knopfler, and so on. There are gallons upon gallons of stories.

Yet at the same time, Harris puts us at ease and lets us know that the stories and the songs, moments of life designed to make us feel whole for a minute or two, belong to more than just her.

Hard Bargain opens with “The Road.” The track recalls Parsons and Harris’ relationship with him. She refers to fire and hunger, sinking her teeth into the deeply personal lyrics. “I can still remember every single song you played,” she sings.

It helps that the arrangement, like all the arrangements on the record, is played through by just three musicians. Harris’ acoustic guitar and vocals join with Jay Joyce and Giles Reaves to create a sound that is full without being crowded.

As if to complement Dylan’s take (“Death of Emmett Till”), Harris offers “My Name is Emmett Till.” The song is couched in the journey of a troubled nation over the last 50 years, but Harris still places us right in the 1955 horror. It’s hard a listen because she spares nothing, providing more than just a history lesson with her straightforward presentation and light arrangement.

“Goodnight Old World” is a hauntingly gorgeous piece of work, kissed gently by Harris’ strumming. And “Darlin’ Kate” soars as a powerful number through its dedication to Kate McGarrigle and Harris’ emotional phrasing.

Emmylou Harris, now 64 years old, has built a record with her bare hands. Constructed with simple materials, Hard Bargain is perhaps more than a collection of her stories. It’s something to put our stories in.

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