Written by Fantasma el Rey
The sweet voice of Emmylou Harris is a country standard and it is represented well in a new box set titled Songbird: Rare Tracks And Forgotten Gems. With the sample disc I received, I got a good sense of a voice that has always grabbed my attention.
Emmylou Harris was born in 1947 to a military family stationed in Birmingham, AL and grew up in the south. While attending the University of North Carolina, she developed a serious liking for the folk music sounds of Bob Dylan and Joan Baez. Thus prompting her to form a duo, leave UNC, move to New York and engulf herself in the Greenwich Village scene. While there, she would make the friends that would help her complete her debut album Gliding Bird. After its release the record label went under, leaving Emmylou with nothing and forcing her to move back to her parents who now lived in Washington D.C.
In D.C. she met members of the Flying Burrito Brothers who would hook her up with the young country rock pioneer Gram Parsons. He had been looking for a female voice to accompany him on his solo records and Emmylou was it. She would tour with him and his band and sing harmony on his two albums G.P. and Grievous Angel, the latter would become his most significant solo album. Although he tragically died soon after its recording, it continuing to have an impact.
Not long after Parsons passed Emmylou signed with Warner Bros/Reprise and recorded numerous albums and singles with the label into the ‘90s. After leaving Warners and moving to Asylum Records, she continued to release new music, refusing to become a nostalgic stage act. Throughout her career Emmylou would perform with many other great voices including Roy Orbison, Neil Young, Rodney Crowell, Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt, and let’s not forget Willie Nelson and George Jones. But it was with Parton and Ronstadt that Harris would record the extremely popular Trio and Trio II albums, which produced the hits “To Know Him Is To Love Him” (the Phil Spector Classic) and “Telling Me Lies.” It is from Trio that I first heard Emmylou Harris’ angelic voice for the first time.
Songbird breaks away from being a greatest-hits box and focuses on material that might not have been heard before by most folks. This is great because it turns the focus from just a song’s popularity to her amazing vocals. My sample disc opens with “Beyond The Blue” and is a perfect example of the power of her voice. With lines like “This life is but a dream” she sounds as if she is a mother gently whispering comfort to her fallen child or consoling them after a death in the family.
“Clocks” is a tune that has piano and guitar work sounding like ticking clocks and the plucking of time as it moves along, bringing sunlight to a missing loved one’s face. Again with her humming, Emmylou sounds soothing yet sad and brings chills that make me play this somewhat dark tune over and over again.
Two gems of the disc are “Palms Of Victory” and “Softly And Tenderly,” which feature the trio that first set my ears alight. “Softly” begins with the heart-stopping sound of Emmylou’s voice and nothing else. After 35 seconds in another world, the gentle picking of a banjo slips in to lend a hand along with the soft strumming of a guitar and the slow bowing of a big bass fiddle. On many of the disc’s songs the traditional instruments of the bluegrass sound aid the magic of Emmylou’s voice.
There are songs that take on different country styles like the prairie, western campfire leanings of “All I Left Behind” with its acoustic guitars and lament of things left behind on the lost highway. Another number about the lonesome road is “Highway Of Heartache” with Carl Jackson supplying male vocals. This tunes picks up the pace a bit and has a solid rhythm section with a low yet driving beat that shows Emmylou can move along just fine with something that swings a bit faster.
“Waltz Across Texas Tonight,” “Snowin’ On Raton,” and “Gone” are the songs outside of the Trio set I remember and love the most. “Waltz Across Texas” is a honky-tonk classic putting Emmylou in the company of country outlaw greats. “Gone” gives a wink and a nod to her hero Bob Dylan in its structure and lyrics. With piano, banjo, and electric and acoustic guitars these tunes bring it all together and capture the overall Emmylou Harris sound perfectly.
Her sweet and haunting vocals are soft yet contain a power that can move mountains and cause devils to cry. Even with great instruments and musicians behind her, Emmylou’s voice is what draws you in and holds you until she is done with a song. Her vocals take you wherever she goes, moving from a low whisper and quite hum to a soaring high-end note, held with perfection and marking a word with importance and forcing you to look at it and see it through her beautiful eyes. And yes, I do think that the woman is truly beautiful and it is reflected not only in her voice and good looks but in the way she carries herself in the media and throughout her life. Songbird is a wonderful look at that life and career.