10 Best Emmylou Harris Songs

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 the perfect vocal foil for Harris on this tragic duet. ‘My Antonia’ is another Harris original, from Red Dirt Girl, an album Harris largely wrote herself. It’s 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 Texan songwriter Townes Van Zandt’s best-known song. Harris was the first artist to cover it. Harris’ pure voice sounds terrific on 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, chronicling 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 on 1980’s 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?

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  1. She’s one of those singers who’s singing I dislike simply because I think it’s really poor and really weak but nevertheless made a bunch of really good tracks when everything was just right. And I tend to like the albums that everyone else seems to think are her worst. Anyway I think these are her best songs.
    1. In My Dreams
    2. Rose of Cimarron
    3. Luxury Liner
    4. Tulsa Queen
    5. Tennessee Rose
    7. How High the Moon
    8. Bad Moon Rising
    9. Ain’t Living Long like This
    10. C’est la Vie. (You Never Can Tell)

    • I like how you’re digging into those early 1980s albums. Brian Ahern is a very good producer, and all those 1975-1983 albums sound really nice.
      I like her voice – it’s thin and wispy, but I find it pretty. Works really well in duets though.

  2. I forgot to put Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend in my top ten. I don’t really like the way she recites the lyrics like that but the rest of the track is great.

  3. These tunes are great. I think my favorite among them is Evangeline with Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt. These harmony voices sound so sweet, they almost make you cry.
    There is something very captivating about Emmylou Harris. I can’t quite explain it. Undoubtedly, a large part is her voice.
    Ironically, this is all coming from a guy who has said a million times he doesn’t like country. Though that has definitely changed in more recent years.
    I think one of the best vocal performances I know that involves Emmylou Harris is the cover of Neil Young’s “After The Gold Rush,” which she also sang together with Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt. That version actually has made me cry!

    • Thanks for listening. She has a huge catalogue and it would be easy to find ten completely different songs.
      People that know more than me have talked about how she’s kind of a precursor to Americana artists like Gillian Welch and Jason Isbell. She’s able to marry the authenticity of country with classy and contemporary production.
      Have you seen her play Evangeline in The Last Waltz?

  4. I’ve never heard that Daniel Lanois produced an Emmylou Harris’ record. And it is very good indeed.
    Sorry to know that your father passed away. Knowing that Harry’s voice is something in common with him should comfort you.

  5. You can’t go wrong with her. I like Wayfaring Stranger and Those Memories Of You. That is just off the top of my head. I just heard Angel From Montgomery with her and John Prine the day after he passed that I really liked.
    When you pointed me to “For No One” I loved it and kept listening to it.
    I don’t know her catalog enough to have a favorite but I could hear her sing anything. She knows how to pick songs for herself.

  6. Sorry to hear about your dad. Quarter Moon in a Ten Cent Town (1978) Pieces of the Sky (1975), and Wrecking Ball (1995) are the albums I go back to the most from her disography. Will check out your song picks and the movie The Last Waltz

  7. Good choices Aph, I first heard her on Parsons GP album. I have been listening to her since then. She has so many songs and albums and guested all over the place. One of the most recognizable voices I know. I will play the first song I ever heard her voice on and think of your dad. ‘We’ll Sweep Out The Ashes In The Morning’. Take care.

  8. I love almost everything Emmylou has ever done. The occasional fade or rasp in her voice just adds to the beauty of the song. Of her lesser known songs, I’d pick her version of Rodney Crowell’s wonderful “Till I gain control again” from Elite Hotel and the gorgeous sound of “Lonely street” from the fantastic Bluebird

    • I haven’t heard Bluebird – I listened to everything through to 1985 (except Gliding Bird) and then stuff from 1995-2000. I mean to come back to the in-between stuff sometime. She’s amazingly consistent.

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