Saturday, May 7, 2011

Balancing Heartbreak and Hope: Emmylou Harris's Hard Bargain

Originally celebrated for her remarkable talent to construe the songs of others, Emmylou Harris has recently proven that she is quite the tunesmith herself. Still going strong 40 years into her career, Americana’s long-time mistress has just released her 21st studio album Hard Bargain (Nonesuch, 2011). Offering 11 original songs, three of which are co-penned by Grammy and Oscar-winning composer Will Jennings, Hard Bargain is a beautiful, subtle and extremely personal set of songs where Emmylou shares both an intimate reflection on her own life and her own interpretation of everyday struggles of American life.

Born into a military family in Birmingham, Alabama, Harris spent much of her childhood in North Carolina and Virgina. Her degree in drama at the University of North Carolina soon gave way to her music career, leading her to the folk scene in Greenwich Village. The young singer proved she had a gift for perfecting the songs of such folkies as Bob Dylan and Joan Baez. Her debut LP, Gliding Bird, was released in 1968 and included acoustic renditions of her contemporaries. This promising beginning was cut short when her label went bankrupt weeks after its release. Coupled with the failure of a new marriage and pregnancy, she was alone and impoverished in Nashville. While struggling to make ends meet for her daughter, she moved back in with her parents and the put her guitar to work on the local folk scene.

Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris (photo by Lily Hou).
Harris was soon discovered and recommended to Gram Parsons (formerly of The Byrds and The Flying Burrito Brothers) who was looking for a female vocalist to accompany his latest work. Gram quickly took Emmylou under his wing bestowing his knowledge of the “three chords and the truth” onto his young apprentice. Emmylou toured with Gram’s band The Fallen Angels and lent her aching voice to his first solo album Grievous Angel in 1974. But tragedy struck the young singer’s life again that year when her mentor died of an accidental morphine and alcohol overdose on September 19th. Devastated by the news, Emmylou kept moving forward and released her second album, Pieces of the Sky, in 1975. Included on this record, was “Boulder to Birmingham” a tribute to her late mentor. While Gram did not live to see the success that would follow Emmylou, she still keeps his legend alive; "The Road," the opening track on Hard Bargain, is her latest tribute to her late friend.

Emmylou Harris in The Last Waltz. 

Emmylou quickly became an object of adoration in country music. Over time she has created an iconoclastic library of work that has earned her 12 Grammy Awards and a place in the Country Music Hall of Fame. Her genre bending sound of folk, country and rock has earned her mass appeal not only from fans, but also among her peers. She was a sought after duet partner for many of her contemporaries and gained much recognition for lending her vocals to the work of such artists as Roy Orbison and The Band. (Emmylou appeared in The Band’s renowned 1976 farewell concert The Last Waltz.) She was also part of a country power-trio with Dolly Parton and Linda Rondstadt. Especially impressive about Emmylou’s career is its longevity. Her reputation has spanned decades, touring with Sarah Mclachlan’s Lilith Fair in the late 1990s, and into the 21st century when she accompanied Ryan Adams on his Hearbraker album. The song “My Sweet Carolina” was actually written by Ryan as a tribute to his home state (which he shares with Emmylou). 

After the release of Wrecking Ball, produced by Daniel Lanois in 1995, Emmylou shifted her focus toward performing her own compositions. The result has been an anthology of heartfelt and artistic albums carefully woven from years of experience as an interpretor. While other critics have found the truthfulness behind Hard Bargain almost tragic, Emmylou balances the heartache with hope with a record that is immensely personal. In addition to her lost mentor, Emmylou also pays tribute to her friend Kate McGarrigle, who died of cancer in 2010, in “Darlin’ Kate.” On a tenderer note, Emmylou also composed a lullaby for her grandchild, “Goodnight Old World,” which contrasts the one generation’s hopes for another. “The Ship on His Arm” is a lovely tribute to undying love between a wife and her missing solider husband, written in memory of her parents’ unyielding relationship through war. The only cover song that does appear is the title track, her rendition of Ron Sexsmith’s “Hard Bargain.” Not every track is a must hear. Some weaker moments include “Big Black Dog,” a tribute to Emmylou's dog Bella, who was rescued from a shelter and now provides company on tour. The song is a genial miss.

Strangers are also honoured on Hard Bargain, including the victim of a 1950s hate crime in “My Name is Emmett Till.” (Till, a 14-year-old African American, was killed on August 28, 1955 by two white men, reportedly after flirting with a white woman.) Emmylou also tells her own story through tracks like “Lonely Girl,” a song about being a single woman in the autumn of her life. Emmylou exposes her innermost feelings throughout the lyrics as she embraces her loneliness in a sad, but realistic manner: “But if love can’t find me again / I’ll put it all behind me then / I’ll just go and learn to sing / Another sad love song.” This theme of solidarity and reflection make several appearances on Hard Bargain, intrinsic to the singer’s obvious state of mind.

In addition to the impressive song writing, Hard Bargain has a strong and powerful delivery. Accompanied by full, but uncluttered instrumental backing, Emmylou’s acoustic guitar and crystal voice remain in focus. Her voice still rings clear at 64-years-old, a glowing example of an artist that not only perseveres over time, but one who becomes even finer.

Laura Warner is a librarian, researcher and aspiring writer living in Toronto. She is currently based in the Canadian Broadcasting Centre’s Music Library.

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