Song of the Day, May 4: Emmylou by First Aid Kit

First_Aid_Kit_EmmylouToday’s song is a charming tribute to the unifying power of music. After the success of their first album, Swedish duo First Aid Kit returned to the studio with new confidence and vision. The result, The Lion’s Roar, was a powerful statement of modern folk pop, with the Söderberg sisters weaving great new songs. The standout is Emmylou.

The song is a first-person narrative, with the singer pondering dark weather and romantic tension. Looking to reconcile with her lover, she summons up two great musical pairs: Johnny and June Carter Cash and Emmylou Harris and Gram Parsons.

I’ll be your Emmylou and I’ll be your June
If you’ll be my Gram and my Johnny too
No, I’m not asking much of you
Just sing little darling, sing with me

It’s a delightful conceit, carried off with sincerity. The beautiful music hints at the collaborations of the other couples underscoring the message of unity and healing.

Enjoy this beautiful song today.

Song of the Day, April 15: Love Is by the McGarrigle Sisters

McGarrigleHALoveIsEmmylouBluebirdLoveIsToday’s song comes in two lovely versions. Kate and Anna McGarrigle wrote Love Is with their sister, Jane, in the mid-80s. They included it in live shows during a long break from studio work during that decade.It’s a charming song, a lovely bit of wordplay celebrating the ups and downs of that most powerful of emotions.

Longtime friend Emmylou Harris borrowed the song for her 1988 album, Bluebird, recording an energetic, country-pop version. Two years later, Kate and Anna recorded Heartbeats Accelerating, one of their finest albums. A synth-based adult contemporary/folk disc, it includes a more meditative version of the track. Both versions are spectacular, demonstrating how widely varied interpretations can lend strength to a good song.

Enjoy both Emmylou’s take and Kate and Anna’s version today.

Song of the Day, April 29: Poor Wayfaring Stranger by Eliza Carthy and Norma Waterson

WCGiftStrangerToday’s song is The Wayfaring Stranger. It’s a gospel-tinged American folk song [Roud 3339] dating to the early 19th Century. The narrator is a troubled soul, doing her best to get by in a world of troubles and looking forward to peace in the end. The song has been recorded many times by a wide array of artists and was recognized by the Western Writers of America as one of the Top 100 Western Songs in 2010.

I enjoy a wide variety of interpretations of this song.

  • Burl Ives recorded a version in 1944 and it became one of his signature songs.
  • Legendary folk singer and song historian Almeda “Granny” Riddle also included the song in her collections over the years.
  • Emmylou Harris recorded a version on her 1980 album Roses In the Snow and released it as a successful single [#7 Country].
  • Neko Case included a stirring version on her 2004 album The Tigers Have Spoken.

On the other side of the pond, Martin Carthy sang the song on Sydney Carter’s television program Hallelujah in 1966; that version was included in the album released to celebrate the show’s musical themes. Over 40 years later, Carthy’s wife and daughter turned in my favorite take on the song.

Eliza Carthy and Norma Waterson released their first album as a recording duo in 2010. The lead-off track was a beautiful take on the song (using its alternate title) that Liza describes this way:

…this one comes from Mam and Aidan [Curran] sitting having a tune one night. Aidan led the arrangement, right down to trying to tell Danny Thompson what to play without being too scared.

Family member Marry Waterson provides haunting harmonies that round out the song. Enjoy this lovely rendition of a classic folk tune today.

Album of the Week, October 5: Wrecking Ball by Emmylou Harris

HarrisWreckingEmmylou Harris was born into a military family in Birmingham, AL in 1947 and grew up in Alabama, North Carolina, and Virginia. While attending college in North Carolina on a dramatic arts scholarship, she developed a passion for folk music, learning the songs of Bob Dylan and Joan Baez while perfecting her powerful, crystalline vocals. She dropped out of college and moved to New York, where she embarked on a folk career. After her early musical efforts and first marriage fizzled out, she moved back to Virginia to live with family while pursuing a different take on her folk career. Chris Hillman saw her perform and recommended her to former bandmate Gram Parsons, who was looking for a female vocalist to round out his live shows. Harris and Parsons hit it off and she absorbed his passion for country and Americana into her deep folk roots. After Parsons’ untimely death, she began a solo career in earnest in 1974. Over the course of 20 years, she became famous as a versatile, powerful force in country music and as a stellar collaborator. She worked with stars ranging from Buck Owens and Roy Orbison to Charlie Louvin and Don Williams. Most famously, she partnered with longtime friends Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt for Trio, a highlight in all three careers. Harris’ Hot Band also helped launch the careers of Rodney Crowell and Ricky Skaggs.

Title Wrecking Ball
Act Emmylou Harris
Label Elektra Release Date September 26, 1995
Producer Daniel Lanois
U.S. Chart  94 U.K. Chart  46
Tracks
  1. Where Will I Be
  2. Goodbye
  3. All My Tears
  4. Wrecking Ball
  5. Goin’ Back to Harlan
  6. Deeper Well
  7. Every Grain of Sand
  8. Sweet Old World
  9. May This Be Love
  10. Orphan Girl
  11. Blackhawk
  12. Waltz Across Texas Tonight

By 1995, Harris was a respected performer in country, folk, and pop circles, reknowned for her flawless phrasing, achingly beautiful voice, and perfect sense of song selection. She startled everyone by teaming with rising star producer Daniel Lanois for her 21st effort, Wrecking Ball. Lanois came to attention collaborating with Brian Eno on U2’s The Unforgettable Fire and The Joshua Tree. He produced remarkable, eclectic albums for Peter Gabriel, the Neville Brothers, Bob Dylan, and Robbie Robertson. Famous for his open, atmospheric sound, he was a strange — but inspired, as it turned out — match for famously stripped-down, back-to-basics Emmylou Harris.

Wrecking Ball is a singular masterpiece that demonstrates Harris’ vision, passion, and experimental spirit. That said, it’s also a smart set of collaborations, echoing that aspect of her long career as well. Fundamentally a joining of forces between Harris and Lanois, it features a stunning set of songs and a cohesive sonic palette with solid guest appearances that enhance rather than distract from the overall vision. The core band — Harris on vocals and acoustic guitar, Lanois on guitars and mandolin, Malcolm Burns on piano and keyboards, and U2’s Larry Mullen, Jr. on percussion — form a solid base that welcomes the guest talents as they join the show.

A strong thread that runs through the album is a celebration of spirituality. While never overtly religious, Harris has touched on spiritual themes before; Lanois’ work — especially with U2 and Dylan — has featured similar conceits. The diversity of the tracks and Harris’ consistent, passionate delivery create a tapestry of human spirit that transcends any particular religion, even when channeling fairly Christian lyrics. In Harris’ capable hands, Lanois’ Where Will I Be? is as much a testament to a life lived honestly as a prescription for salvation. Julie Miller’s quietly powerful All My Tears and Dylan’s joyous Every Grain of Sand celebrate a shared humanity while relative newcomer Gillian Welch’s Orphan Girl seeks hope against a backdrop of isolation.

Another common element — one that fits well in Harris’ rich catalog — is the story song. She’s written and covered ballads and biographies ranging from the poignant to the whimsical, sometimes brilliantly both. Three strong stories feature on Wrecking Ball. The Lanois-penned Blackhawk is a rootsy, rough-hewn story of blue-collar love. While it’s not deeply original in concept, Harris’ tender but earthy delivery brings it home. One of the album’s strongest tracks is her interpretation of the title song from Lucinda Williams’ fourth disc, Sweet Old World. A rare example of a cover challenging a strong original, Harris wrings the sorrow from the song while never allowing it to sink into pathos. It’s a flawless balancing act, featuring some nice acoustic guitar work from its writer. Anna McGarrigle’s Goin’ Back To Harlan is a similar treat, with Harris revelling in every folk music reference and lending the song her own distinctive flair. That she is able to take such a richly personal song and celebrate its ringing universality is a tribute to both women.

As those two songs illustrate, Harris’ knack for selecting songs to cover is as strong as ever. Three other choices feature in the rich Wrecking Ball mix. The title track was penned by fellow iconoclast Neil Young and features his haunting harmonies. A deceptively simple story of a couple at a dance, it’s a rich, lovely tune rounded out beautifully by Lanois’ unusually subtle enhancements. Slightly less effective is the choice of Jimi Hendrix’ lovely May This Be Love. While the almost pastoral beauty of the song is rendered elegantly by Harris, Lanois’ rich guitar work fails to live up to or add new textures to the original. As a result, it reads as a nice tribute but the weakest effort on a powerful disc. From quite the opposite direction comes the fragile, sorrowful Goodbye, penned by long-time friend Steve Earle. A haunting breakup song, it is simply one of the loveliest tracks Harris has recorded.

The remaining two tracks — closing out each side of the original vinyl version — feature rare writing credits for Harris. She’s composed a wonderful array of songs throughout her career, but has relied more heavily on interpreting the work of others. These two songs remind us that she’s a skilled composer as well. Deeper Well, written with Lanois and Dave Olney, is a lusty meditation on the forces that shape us in life. With rich natural imagery and an uncharacteristically rough vocal from Harris, it’s a stunner from start to finish. The album ends with one of her finest moments, the beautiful Waltz Across Texas Tonight, written with former bandmate Rodney Crowell. Featuring stirring harmonies from the McGarrigle sisters, it’s a haunting closer with rich textures. It’s one of Lanois’ finest moments as producer, featuring enough open space to let each note ring out with its own power. As the last, glorious notes fade away, the sense of wonder that pervades Wrecking Ball is given a fitting wrap-up. Emmylou Harris continues to record, perform, inspire, and impress twenty years on, but this set of songs sums up her talents in one brilliant, blissful package.

Song of the Day, August 1: Goin’ Back to Harlan

McGarrigleKateAnneMatapediaToday’s song is Goin’ Back to Harlan. Anna McGarrigle wrote it for her seventh album with sister Kate, the rootsy Matapédia. It’s a potent song of nostalgia and longing, with the singer reflecting on childhood innocence and yearning for a return to simpler days. McGarrigle name-checks a wide array of traditional folk songs throughout the lyrics, adding an extra layer of charm and poignancy. After a couple of albums with significant synthesizer content, this disc was a return to their musical roots, and the simple arrangement and instrumentation helps make the song especially compelling.

EmmylouHarlanPart of the magic of the McGarrigle sisters is that their deeply personal music is so universal that many musicians have covered their songs. This track is no exception. Family friend Emmylou Harris chose it for inclusion on her stunning 1995 album Wrecking Ball. While faithful to the original, she makes it truly her own, turning in a high, clear vocal that is one of her finest moments.

Enjoy this beautiful song in two live versions today, first by Kate and Anna McGarrigle and then as lovingly interpreted by Emmylou Harris.

Song of the Day, February 25: If I Could Only Win Your Love by Emmylou Harris

EmmylouPiecesWinLoveToday’s song is If I Could Only Win Your Love by Emmylou Harris. After recording the largely-overlooked Gliding Bird, Harris spent a few years as a collaborator and harmony vocalist, most notably with Gram Parsons. These experiences honed her skills and broadened her palette. When she recorded her second album, 1975’s Pieces of the Sky, she demonstrated a powerful knowledge and talent for all kinds of country music. The disc was mostly covers, featuring luminaries like Dolly Parton, Merle Haggard, Rodney Crowell, Shel Silverstein, and Lennon-McCartney.

This track, the album’s highlight, was written by old-time country stars the Louvin Brothers, who had recorded their version over a decade earlier. Harris makes the most of the gentle yearning of the song, creating a beautifully aching song. Herb Pedersen provides pitch-perfect harmonies, showing an early glimpse of Harris’ knack for picking the best musical collaborators.

If I could only win your love
I’d give my all to make it live
You’ll never know how much I give
If I could only win your love

The song — her second single — peaked at #4 on the Country chart, her first major showing.

Enjoy this lovely song today.

Song of the Day, December 4: Deeper Well by Emmylou Harris

Today’s song is Deeper Well by Emmylou Harris. It appears on her 1995 masterpiece Wrecking Ball. Working with producer Daniel Lanois (who co-wrote this track), Harris brilliantly assembled all the strands of her career into a cohesive, compelling document. This song is placed at the center, serving as an anchor to the many themes of the disc.

It’s a song of mythic proportions, a tale of questing and yearning. Drawing on many compelling images, the lyrics use thirst as the central metaphor for all the things we look for in life, with the deeper well symbolizing the things that should matter most.

So I ran with the moon and I ran with the night
And the three of us were a terrible sight
Nipple to the bottle to the gun to the cell
To the bottom of a hole of a deeper well
Well…lookin’ for the water from a deeper well

Harris’ voice, always a potent tool, is at its finest throughout the album, seldom more so than on this song. Exploring her full range, including a startling low octave, she pulls the listener through the song with stunning power and grace. Enjoy this wonderful song today.

Song of the Day, April 2: Goodbye by Emmylou Harris

Today’s song is Goodbye by Emmylou Harris. It appears on her 1995 masterpiece, Wrecking Ball. Always an innovative singer and songwriter, Harris is also a brilliant interpreter of other people’s songs. She brought this all together on one brilliant album that somehow celebrates the breadth and depth of her career while seeming fresh with every listen. This poignant ballad by Steve Earle is a delightful inclusion.

But I recall all of them nights down in Mexico,
One place I will never go in my life again.
Was I just off somewhere or just too high?
But I can’t remember if we said goodbye.
No I can’t remember if we said goodbye.
Goodbye.
Goodbye.

Wish Emmylou Harris a very happy 65th birthday today and enjoy this wonderful song.

Song of the Day, March 7: Telling Me Lies the Trio (originally by Linda Thompson)

Today’s song is Telling Me Lies by Linda Thompson and covered by the Trio. After divorce from husband Richard in 1982, Linda began the gradual work of assembling her first solo album. She wrote many of the tracks with Betsy Cook whom she had met through Gerry Rafferty when he was exchanging album work with Richard and Linda in the late 70s. Although many (including Linda herself) bemoan the heavy 80s production values, One Clear Moment is a strong album with many great songs. One of the true standouts is Telling Me Lies. Although it’s tempting to read it as autobiography (and perhaps a counterpoint to Richard’s She Twists the Knife Again from Across A Crowded Room, his album of the same year), it is a very universal song that fits easily into her catalog.

You told me you needed my company
And I believed in your flattering ways
Told me you needed me forever
Nearly gave you the rest of my days

Should’ve seen you for what you are
Should never have come back for more
Should’ve locked up all my silver
Brought the key back to your door

I cover my ears I close my eyes
Still hear your voice and it’s telling me lies
Telling me lies

The song took on new life in 1988 when Emmylou Harris, Dolly Parton, and Linda Ronstadt recorded a beautiful cover version for their album Trio. That recording went to #3 on the Country charts led to a Grammy nomination for Best Country Song and Linda Thompson’s only performance at a Grammy ceremony. (The song lost to Forever and Ever, Amen as performed by Randy Travis.) Copyright restrictions prevent the online availability of Linda’s brilliant original recording, so enjoy this video for the great Trio version today.

Song of the Day, April 1 – 9

Until I got the Jukebox set up, I was only sharing these via Facebook and Twitter. There will be daily posts here over the next year. Here are the Songs of the Day starting with April 1.

  1. Chain of Fools, Aretha Franklin (Happy April Fools Day!)
  2. Waltz Across Texas Tonight, Emmylou Harris (Happy birthday, Emmylou!)
  3. Hand of Kindness, Richard Thompson (Happy birthday, Richard!)
  4. The Married Men, The Roches
  5. Sweet-Lovin’ Man, The Magnetic Fields (Happy birthday, Claudia Gonson!)
  6. The Oxford Girl, Oysterband
  7. Our Story, The JudyBats
  8. Take Me I’m Yours, Squeeze
  9. This Tender Trap, Gregson & Collister
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