Emmylou Harris was discovered by ex-Byrd Chris Hillman in a folk club. Hillman recommended her to country maverick Gram Parsons. Parsons featured Harris’ harmony vocals on songs like ‘Love Hurts’, and mentored her in country music. When Parsons passed away in 1973, Harris continued his legacy of “cosmic American music”, blending country, blues, and rock.
Parsons would have been proud of Harris’ extensive catalogue of classy albums. When her career started to run out of steam in her forties, she revived it with the more experimental sound of 1995’s Wrecking Ball. Picking ten songs from such a rich catalogue is highly subjective – only four of these ten songs appear on Harris’ 2005 compilation The Very Best of Emmylou Harris: Heartaches & Highways.
10 Best Emmylou Harris Songs
#10 – Prayer in Open D
from Cowgirl’s Prayer, 1993
Harris is best known as a song interpreter, but ‘Prayer in Open D’ is the first of four Harris compositions on this list. It’s probably the most revealing song that she’s ever written, singing of her inner turmoil and opening with the line “There’s a valley of sorrow in my soul/Where every night I hear the thunder roll.”
#9 – Leaving Louisiana in the Broad Daylight
from Quarter Moon in a Ten Cent Town, 1978
Harris drew from a diverse range of material on her first three Reprise records. Paul McCartney’s Revolver ballads, old country chestnuts, and Gram Parsons’ back-catalogue were all mined for choice songs. 1978’s Quarter Moon in a Ten Cent Town zeroes in on recent material from country writers like Dolly Parton and Jesse Winchester. ‘Leaving Louisiana in the Broad Daylight’ is written by frequent collaborator Rodney Crowell. The rasp in Harris’ usually pristine voice underlines the chorus hook.
#8 – My Antonia
from Red Dirt Girl, 2000
I don’t appreciate the Dave Matthews Band’s hookless jams, but Matthews’ gravelly tones are a great vocal foil for Harris on this tragic duet. ‘My Antonia’ is another Harris composition, based on Willa Cather’s 1918 novel My Ántonia, about pioneers in Nebraska in the 19th century.
#7 – (You Can Never Tell) C’est La Vie
from Luxury Liner, 1977
Harris has covered some unlikely songs in her career – Jimi Hendrix’s ‘May This Be Love’ and Donna Summer’s ‘On The Radio’ are two surprising pieces that she’s brought into her catalogue. She made Chuck Berry’s ‘(You Can Never Tell) C’est La Vie’ into a #6 country hit in 1977, featuring Ricky Skaggs on cajun fiddle.
#6 – Evangeline
from Evangeline, 1981
Robbie Robertson wrote ‘Evangeline’ the night before The Band’s Last Waltz concert. The original broadcast version was accordingly ragged; the Harris duet with Rick Danko, used in the movie, was recorded later on the MGM soundstage. Harris recorded her own version of the song for 1981’s Evangeline, with Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt on harmony vocals.
#5 – Pancho and Lefty
from Luxury Liner, 1977
‘Pancho and Lefty’ is now Texas Troubadour Townes Van Zandt’s best-known song, and Harris was the first artist to cover it. Harris’ pure voice is a great platform for Van Zandt’s parable about two wayward outlaws. Harris’ duet with Don Williams on ‘If I Needed You’ on 1981’s Cimarron is another ace Van Zandt cover.
#4 – Orphan Girl
from Wrecking Ball, 1995
Harris’ 1993 album Cowgirl’s Prayer was comparatively unsuccessful, as country stations dropped older artists from their playlists. Harris’ label allowed her to pick the producer for her next record, and she chose Daniel Lanois, who’d worked with Brian Eno on U2’s The Joshua Tree. Lanois provides an atmospheric sheen and ghostly harmonies on Wrecking Ball. It’s full of great tracks but my favourite is ‘Orphan Girl’, written by Gillian Welch (yet to release her debut album).
#3 – Woman Walk The Line
from The Ballad of Sally Rose, 1985
Written by Harris with then-husband Paul Kennerley, The Ballad of Sally Rose was a poor seller on release. It’s since been recognised as one of Harris’ best. It builds on the mythology around Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris, extrapolating a relationship between a hard-living musician and an aspiring singer. ‘Woman Walk The Line’ is a central song to the concept, a statement of female independence. The dramatic guitar strums are a great hook.
#2 – Green Pastures
from Roses in the Snow, 1980
Harris dived into pure bluegrass with Roses in the Snow, showcasing Ricky Skaggs on duet vocals. The record especially shines on traditional tunes like ‘Wayfaring Stranger’ and the Johnny Cash duet vocals on ‘Jordan’. My favourite is Harris and Skaggs’ lovely take on the traditional spiritual ‘Green Pastures’.
#1 – Boulder to Birmingham
from Pieces of the Sky, 1975
Harris rarely wrote her own material on her country-rock albums for Reprise, but her tribute to Gram Parsons on Pieces of the Sky is gorgeous. ‘Boulder to Birmingham’ was written with Bill Danoff, who also wrote ‘Afternoon Delight’ and ‘Take Me Home, Country Roads’. The verse melody is beautiful, while the chorus has a touch of gospel, overlain by James Burton’s memorable lead guitar.
It’s fitting to write about Emmylou Harris this week as, along with Simon and Garfunkel, she was the only artist that my father and I owned physical albums by. My father suddenly passed away this week while this article was at draft stage – next Saturday would have been his 76th birthday.
Are you a fan of Emmylou Harris? What are your favourite songs?