The sound of Wrecking Ball (Elektra), Emmylou Harris’s 1995 album produced by former Brian Eno/Neville Brothers associate Daniel Lanois, drew me back toward her. But it was her fiercely energetic if unevenly recorded live disc, 1998’s Spyboy (Eminent), and the tour that followed with her postpsychedelic power trio that made me want more for the first time since Harris started singing trios with Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt in 1987. I went back and listened to Elite Hotel and Pieces of the Sky (Reprise) and Luxury Liner (Warner Bros.), her early country rock-outs with the Hot Band, which she mostly inherited from the late Gram Parsons (who’d mostly stolen it from Elvis Presley). And even 1972’s GP and 1973’s Grievous Angel (both Reprise), the two albums on which she duetted with Parsons. Parsons, of course, is the man who turned the Byrds (and subsequently all of Los Angeles) toward what became country-rock, founded the Flying Burrito Brothers, partied (and co-wrote songs) with the Rolling Stones, elevated Harris to national attention and in 1973 was found dead (of coroner-ruled “natural causes”) in a motel in Joshua Tree, California. Friends stole his body and burned it in the Joshua Tree National Monument.
How rock and roll can you get? Parsons, never widely famous, became a cult figure. Harris went on to conquer Nashville, continuing the vector Parsons had sketched in his crossover country lilts like “Hickory Wind,” “Wheels” and “Sin City” (“On the 31st floor/A gold-plated door/Won’t keep out the Lord’s burning rain”), all of which became minor classics. She went deep into it, performing at the Ryman Auditorium and so on. Her pretty, soulful, folky voice with the surprisingly resilient country-meets-blues cri de coeur got under my skin less as it settled into Nashville’s more predictable contours. I was waiting for the shakeup, for the rock in country-rock to re-emerge and maybe even, with luck, take over.
That’s what happened on Wrecking Ball and Spyboy. Fired first by Lanois’s Eno-inspired wall-of-sound approach, then by her interracial power trio (guitar whiz Buddy Miller, bass monster Daryl Johnson, agile drummer Brady Blade), Harris didn’t so much tear up her country roots as reinfuse them with another set of musical ideas. It was the sound of a perceptual door opening.
And now there’s Harris’s first studio disc since Wrecking Ball, this time via arty Nonesuch Records, home of the sleeper hit Buena Vista Social Club. Yeah, there may be ironic hay to be made by somebody (not me) out of the fact that Nonesuch has made its bucks as the trendy yuppie label of the eighties and nineties, marketing leather-and-lace Eurotrash hits like the Gypsy Kings. The label’s stock in trade is (justly) its critically ratified, near-automatic intellectual heft and its consequent ability to target boomers who scan the Sunday Times each week for what to absorb.
They could do a lot worse than Harris’s Red Dirt Girl, most of which–rarely, for her–she wrote herself.
It’s a cliché that most people in America want someone else’s life. Ever since the Gold Rush was augmented by Hollywood and John Steinbeck’s Depression, California has been the golden wet dream for Americans’ imaginings of new identities, the place where you could retool yourself and ditch the nasty nagging past you might someday have to answer for–or to.
Yet Harris has been a kind of bellwether of pop music’s directions partly because she’s so rooted in her past; she’s aware of where changes of direction are likely to blow in from. When she started singing with Parsons, country and rock hated each other; over the past decade, as her boomer generation has settled comfortably into middle age, country stars have sounded like the Eagles, who were glossing pages from Parsons’s book. Before the current refashionability of bluegrass and that already gone moment of alt-country, Harris was there. On Red Dirt Girl, she connects the dots between the sixties, Springsteen and the post-Hendrix production style that Lanois has refined.
You could argue that Red Dirt Girl updates Hendrix by way of electronica, but with a (relatively) conservative ear cocked backward, for the boomer audience’s sake. The entire album is a potpourri of styles, somehow overstuffed and lavish and rippling with suggestive overtones even when it’s spare. On the title track, for instance, wisps of overdriven guitar leak almost discreetly into the corners of the soundstage, a sympathetic echo of successive dislocations in the lyrics. Multiple basses rumble and snort through “I Don’t Wanna Talk About It Now,” reflecting the disoriented but overwhelming focus shaping the singer’s emotions. Every cut finds sounds spurting, drifting, poking or sizzling into the deeply textured stereo image, with unexpected and sometimes unsettling results: bits of shock, humor, recognition. Repeatedly, jigs and reels, the staples of Appalachian-descended country, get bushwacked and overlaid or saturated with fuzz and wah-wah washes and distant, jangly electric piano and guitars–of course, always guitars, of every aural hue and cry.
The guitar, rock and roll’s conceptual anchor, is the symbol that links Harris and Springsteen. Consider her in-concert staple, “Born to Run”: Not Springsteen’s song, it takes an angle on male-female relationships that puts the woman in the rock-and-roll driver’s seat. In fact, the title track of Red Dirt Girl is a very Boss-like tale of doppelgängers, one of whom gets stuck in the old hometown:
Nobody knows when she started her skid
She was only 27 and she had five kids
Coulda been the whiskey, coulda been the pills
Coulda been the dreams she was tryin’ to kill
But there won’t be a mention in the News of The World
About the life and the death of a Red Dirt Girl
Who never got any further across the line than Meridian.
Like Springsteen and Tom Waits, Harris often imagines the characters in her songs as people (or aspects of herself) she’s left behind. But in contrast to America’s standard-issue California dreamin’, she doesn’t want to erase her past or disappear beneath each new persona. Which is one of several reasons Gram Parsons hovers, never far, from her music.
“Michelangelo,” the CD’s second cut, is yet another in a long line of Harris tunes that invoke his ghost, the tragic figure of the flawed genius surrounded by his past choices, via a melody that could have come out of Leonard Cohen and a spare but textured aural background speckled with rumbling bass and acoustic guitar strums and jet-stream wisps of overdriven feedback. “Tragedy” sets its tensions between industrial drumming, a clutch of guitars (including a floating pedal steel) and Springsteen and wife Patti Scialfa on backup Everly-Brothers-go-rhythm-and-blues-flavored vocals after the Boss-ish opening: “Some say it’s destiny/Whether triumph or tragedy/But I believe we cast our nets out on the sea/And nothing we gather comes for free.”
That sense of responsibility is why Harris doesn’t erase history, no matter how she may recast it in literary or imaginative terms. (“Bang the Drum Slowly,” a eulogy for her father co-written with Guy Clark, is unabashedly sentimental and biblical, for instance, with an e-bow winding through it like a church organ.) It’s also why, along with the likes of Springsteen and Waits, she has struggled with the theme of redemption time after time, whether singing refurbished old hymns in her soaring vibrato or switching to more profane journeys taken from her own and others’ searching. Understanding, guilt, salvation and love are bound together in lines like these from “The Pearl”: “Like falling stars from the universe we are hurled/Down through the long loneliness of the world/Until we behold the pain become the pearl.”
It’s a story older than that of Piers Plowman, but it may seem quaint in a day when the word “character” has been vastly reduced in meaning, when the world seems like a welter of wannabe victims lining up for a camera shot. The process of living leaves us scarred, as it did Michelangelo, but that’s the price. Cameos come relatively cheap. On the other hand, there’s always the twilight solace of Prozac Nation.
Startlingly produced by Malcolm Burn (who engineered and mixed Wrecking Ball), featuring a dozen or so musicians (also including Dave Matthews and Jill Cunniff), Red Dirt Girl is roughly two-thirds dynamite, one-third breathing space. Sonically, it never stops pushing into those post-Hendrix wah-wah soundscapes, including telephone rings and background conversations, tunes starting with the whirr of a tape machine being turned on–a deliberate carelessness of sonic references from outside the soundstage that paradoxically underscore that stage’s fierce integrity. Conceptually, the album does what the best country music (which it only vaguely is) has always done: tells us stories about where we come from and warns us to look twice about where we’re going.
For Harris never forgets for long our only inevitable destination–which is one big reason you might call this music for grown-ups. Sure, it’s boomer music, so there’s inevitably some nostalgia, but in Harris’s capable, determined, ironic hands, the disc raises more questions than it settles neatly down to bed. And you can hum nearly all of it through the jabs at the job and downers from your parents and/or kids and adrenaline rushes of joy and outbreaks of road rage and those late, ominously clear and sparkling nights when everyone else is finally out cold and you’re rhapsodically wishing you had a telescope.
Harris is on tour now. Don’t miss her.