There are some days when you wonder if getting out of bed was such a wise idea. This morning I opened my email to find myself being accused of hatemongering in a comment left on one of my posts at this site. Considering the source I should have just let it roll off my back, but those are the types of comments that really suck the soul right out of you. Thankfully an antidote had arrived in yesterday’s mail: Heartaches & Highways: The Very Best Of Emmylou Harris
It was early in the morning so not wishing to disturb anyone else I plopped the disc in my disc-man, covered my ears with headphones and immersed myself in the soothing sounds of soul restoring Emmylou. From the opening bars of her duet with Gram Parsons on “Love Hurts” to the final notes of the previously unreleased “Connection” this disc is an ideal tonic for a troubled heart.
Heartaches & Highways is a compilation of songs encompassing Emmylou Harris’ entire career. After Chris Hillman of Birds fame saw her singing in a folk club in New York city he hauled his old buddy Gram Parsons out to see her. One month latter Parsons was on the phone to her asking her to come out to L.A. to record and tour with him.
One year and two albums later Gram Parsons was dead. But those two albums gave her all the exposure she needed to launch a solo career. It’s only fitting that the second song of this retrospective, “Boulder to Birmingham” which she co-wrote with Bill Danoff, was in part an elegy to her former singing partner.
The disc takes us on a steady progression of the highlights of her career. In the informative booklet that accompanies this collection Emmylou talks about the process she went through for selecting the songs.
“It was really like a jigsaw puzzle trying to figure out how to represent all of those phases…I started working on including songs that I thought were artistically important. But I am proud of the hits too…I wanted … a combination of them, plus..(ones)..that were…pivotal, groundbreaking,…pointed the way”
It’s easy to forget the influence Emmylou has had on female vocalists, and country ones especially. While Kris Kristoferson, Willie Nelson, and Waylon Jennings were breaking free of the constraints of Nashville and crossing over into a more mainstream audience for the men, Emmylou was the forerunner for the women. She was even steps ahead of the men, releasing a version of “Pancho and Lefty” six years before either Willie Nelson or Merle Haggard turned it into a hit on her 1977 Luxury Linerrelease.
The songs she has chosen for this retrospective highlight her vocal versatility, from country crooning on “One Of These Days”, “Beneath Still Waters”(both previously recorded by the original bad boy of country music, George Jones) and “If I Could Only Win Your Love” to rocking pieces like Paul Kennerley’s “Born To Run”(don’t go digging out your Springsteen albums, it’s not the same song) on her Cimarron album and Delbert McClinton’s “Two More Bottles Of Wine”.
No compilation would be complete without the inclusion of Emmylou’s collaborations with other singers. From the soundtrack of the 1980 movie Roadie comes her duet with Roy Orbison on “That Lovin’ You Feelin’ Again” and the 1987 hit album Trio recorded with Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt gives us the Phil Spector penned “To Know Him Is To Love Him”
As with any artist whose career has spanned decades, and this disc tries to cover thirty years of recordings, Emmylou has continued to evolve both as a singer and a songwriter. The final third of Heartaches & Highways is culled from her most recent years output.
Whether her own “Michelangelo” or Gillian Welch’s “Orphan Girl” these songs show a willingness to experiment that is so often lacking in contemporary music. But the highlight from this period has to be her a cappella rendition of “Calling My Children Home”
Accompanied by her band at the time, The Nash Ramblers, this song was recorded live at The Ryman Theatre in Nashville. The six voices soar and rumble through the song. Emmylou’s voice like a bird amongst oak trees, flying in and out, occasionally perching, but always on the move and prominent. It was breathtaking.
I’m not a big fan of country music, with it’s artificial sentiment or new found glitz. But as in every genre there are artists who transcend their so called labels. Emmylou Harris’ voice has long distinguished her from the rest of the pack of female country vocalists. This retrospective pays proper homage to both her song writing abilities and the unique quality of her voice.
The booklet accompanying the disc is lacking in bibliographical material beyond what is applicable to the songs, and I would have enjoyed the inclusion of a lyric sheet. But with twenty songs that probably would have doubled the amount of pages and so was probably impractical. Anyway that’s just a minor quibble with a wonderful package.
She’s embarking on two tours this summer, one with Elvis Costello, and the other with Buddy Miller. Either one of these concerts is bound to be wonderful. You can get tour dates and listen to songs from Heartaches & Highways here.
The disc is available in stores now. If you don’t own any of her music this is the perfect addition to your collection. If you do, you may want to buy it anyway, just to have so many of her important songs collected in one place. Take my advice the next time your feeling a little down, put this disc on and plug into a better world.