Emmylou Harris (Nonesuch Records, 2011)
Emmylou Harris’ Hard Bargain is the joyous, bittersweet album that a 64-year-old country-rock legend should make. It looks backward to her beginnings (“The Road”) and mourns the dead (“The Ballad of Emmett Till”), but it also looks out on the present with compassion for all living creatures—a homeless man (“Home Sweet Home”), the victims of Katrina (“New Orleans”), and even a “Big Black Dog.”
Superficially Harris’ career seems to follow the arc of a women’s self-help book. She started in 1969 providing clear, pure, high harmony for the ultimate country-rock bad boy, Gram Parsons. Together, they were downright archetypal. She was innocence and grace; he was carnality and corruption. But no one’s love could save Gram Parsons, who died in 1973 from an overdose of practically everything.
Through the 1970s and ’80s, Harris was a Nashville country music star. She was a solo act, but she always seemed more comfortable in the supporting role of a duet. Rolling into her late 40s, she let her hair turn grey, hired U2’s producer and, after 30 years as an interpreter, started writing her own songs, including 11 tracks on Hard Bargain.
But her story isn’t that simple or clichéd. Parsons gave Harris a start, but she took his spiritual connection to the hillbilly ancestors and made it her own. From the early ’70s on, sweet little Emmylou has also been a “leader of men” as Steve Earle once called her, and in its various incarnations her “Hot Band” was always one of the best out there. Even Harris’ passion for duets is more aesthetic than psychological, rooted in the key early inspiration Parsons gave her for the harmonies of the Louvin Brothers.
In the past decade, Emmylou Harris has finally grown into her silver mane, and, with this new recording, her next phase is shaping up to be at least as interesting as the ones that came before.