Emmylou 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.
||September 26, 1995
- Where Will I Be
- All My Tears
- Wrecking Ball
- Goin’ Back to Harlan
- Deeper Well
- Every Grain of Sand
- Sweet Old World
- May This Be Love
- Orphan Girl
- 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.