Friday, September 14, 2007

The harmonious Emmylou Harris

Posted By on 09.14.07 at 03:13 PM

In the liner notes to her new 4-CD box set, Songbird (Rhino), Emmylou Harris is quoted as saying, “If there’s one thing you can take from all the music in this boxed set, it’s that it would only take one song, the excitement and the possibility of one song that I wanted to sing, to keep me going.” It’s only in the last decade or so that Harris has been writing a significant amount of music; like any country singer worth her salt, she’s made her name putting a distinctive spin on great tunes written by others, and her crystalline, delicate voice has made her work stand out for more than 30 years.

The first two discs of Songbird are mostly culled from studio albums, but the second half of the collection includes plenty of previously unreleased material, collaborative efforts, and a surprisingly large number of compilation appearances. In a testament to her love of a good song, there are pieces she contributed to tribute albums honoring Gram Parsons, Hank Williams, Webb Pierce, Woody Guthrie, Townes Van Zandt, Kate Wolf, and Tammy Wynette. Of course the thing Harris is most famous for is her gorgeous, ghostly harmony singing, a skill that first emerged though her early work with Parsons. She’s made several records with Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt, and she turns up singing here with everyone from Johnny Cash to Willie Nelson to Beck to the Pretenders. I often think of one-off collaborations as arch exercises, but I have no doubt with Harris it’s almost always about the music and her joy in singing. Last year she released All the Roadrunning (Warner Brothers/Nonesuch), a full-length partnership with Mark Knopfler, a guy whose guitar skills are almost always undercut by bad production and uninspired songwriting, but this record was the first I actually enjoyed from him since the first Dire Straits album. He wrote or cowrote every song, and Harris brings a beautiful depth and melodic grace to all of them.

Songbird contains some terrific song-by-song commentary by Peter Cooper, and reading each of the blurbs provides a portrait of Harris almost as vivid as the songs themselves. The book is packed with photos and other ephemera, and there’s a DVD with music videos, live performance footage from WTTW’s Soundstage (from 1978), and interviews. The set is officially released on Tuesday, but since Harris is a doing a signing at Borders on Michigan on Sunday at 1 PM, you’ll be able to pick it up a bit early.

Harris performs Saturday evening at Ravinia.

Today’s playlist:

Giacinto Scelsi, the Orchestral Works 2 (Mode)
Liu Fang, Pipa Music From Chinese Folk Roots (Philmultic)
Baby Dodds, Talking and Drum Solos (Unheard Music Series/Atavistic)
Kevin Ayers, Whatevershebringswesing (Water)
Eddie Hazel, Game, Dames & Guitar Thangs (Collector’s Choice)


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