Monday, March 14, 2016

CD Odyssey Disc 844: Emmylou Harris

It was a stormy and cold walk home in a summer suit, but I’m now ensconced in my warm condo in a boring sweater with a cup of tea in my belly and all is well.

Disc 844 is….Red Dirt Girl
Artist: Emmylou Harris

Year of Release: 2000

What’s up with the Cover? This is one of those albums that came with a cardboard jacket that slid around the plastic jewel case. Those covers are an annoying extra step when you want to listen to the CD, so I’ve taken them all off and stored them somewhere that it isn’t easy to access. The cardboard cover is essentially the same picture but with a wider lens. This version is the close up of Emmylou, looking foxy as hell. You’re welcome.

How I Came To Know It: I have been digging through Emmylou’s back catalogue for many years now. I think I had heard “Wrecking Ball” in the early oughts and liked it, and “Red Dirt Girl” was the next album she’d made so I decided to give it a shot.

How It Stacks Up:  I have 11 of Emmylou Harris’ solo albums. Of those 11, it doesn’t get much better than “Red Dirt Girl.” It does get slightly better though, so I only ranked it second.

Ratings: 4 stars

Unlike most of the albums I’ve been reviewing lately, “Red Dirt Girl” isn’t produced by Daniel Lanois, but it still has his fingerprints all over it. Emmylou even thanks him in the liner notes, writing “My thanks to Daniel Lanois for the push.” We should all be thanking Lanois for that push, which showed that even thirty years into her career, Emmylou Harris was still capable of finding new ways to inspire us through music.

“Red Dirt Girl” sees Emmylou Harris to continue to expand into the new direction she took five years earlier with “Wrecking Ball,” which was produced by Lanois. On “Red Dirt Girl” she embraces his production style, with its big atmospheric sound. Thick and rounded bass features high in the mix of every song, making a fitting foil for the high quaver of Harris’ voice. Emmylou’s voice always gives me chills and the stark way she lets it stand out on this album makes it even more effective.

Admittedly the production isn’t quite at Lanois’ level, and while I was out walking on busy streets I found it a bit too bass heavy in places, and lacking strength in the mid-range. It sounded a lot better at home though, so this could just be the limitations of my MP3 player and rush hour traffic.

Emmylou continues explore contemporary folk songs that feature prominently on “Wrecking Ball.” Folk has always infused Harris’ work, and it is only a dogged devotion to always choosing the most upbeat, commercial song on an album for the single that seems to have held her to the narrow demands of Nashville over the years.

The big change here is that Harris takes a hand in writing the majority of these songs. Most of her albums are written by others, with maybe one song that she writes or co-writes. This is a shame, because despite Emmylou’s exceptional ability to make any song her own writing is just as good as any other songwriter she deigns to record. Many of these songs are co-written, which just seems more fitting for the artist who is the most collaborative of any in my collection.

The topics of these songs range all over, with triumph and tragedy, faith and loss all getting equal opportunity.

Michelangelo” is a song saturated with great images. I’m not an art historian and my cursory online look for the topics mentioned in the song proved fruitless, but lines like:

“Last night I dreamed about you
I dreamed that you lay dying
In a field of thorn and roses
With a hawk above you crying
For the warrior slain in battle
From an arrow driven deep inside you
Long ago

Form a picture out of music and words as beautiful as a Renaissance painting.

On “Red Dirt Girl” (the song) Harris paints a different kind of picture; one of the tragedy of the broken dreams of Lillian, a woman who dreamed big, but dies broken down on whisky and pills a few miles from where she was born. The song ends with her buried in the red dirt ground that she hates and despises. The song always puts a tear in my eye for not only Lillian, but anyone who never got the chance to fulfill their potential.

As a book-end to “Red Dirt Girl” Harris offers “Bang the Drum Slowly” a song about the Harris’ father, whose life is heroic and powerful but still too short when he is gone. When he dies all the things Emmylou never got to say to him are gone at the same time. Guy Clark co-wrote “Bang the Drum Slowly” and together they channel some heavy stuff into those un-held conversations:

“I meant to ask you how to fix that car
I always meant to ask you about the war
And what you saw across a bridge too far
Did it leave a scar?”

This album leaves a scar every time I listen to it. When I looked it up to see how it had done I was pleased to see it won a Grammy, but disappointed that the only single released off of it was a cover of the Patty Griffin song “One Big Love” I love Patty Griffin, but “One Big Love” is too cute and pop-infused to properly showcase all the hidden beauty of this record. I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised that even when Emmylou Harris writes an album full of modern classics, she still makes sure to shine a spotlight on someone else.

Best tracks:  The Pearl, Michelangelo, Tragedy, Red Dirt Girl, Bang the Drum Slowly, My Antonia

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