After 40 years in the music industry, after 25 albums, countless tour dates, and a dozen Grammy awards, is there anything that Emmylou Harris finds daunting about making music? It seems songwriting is still a challenge. “When you cover songs by the greatest songwriters in the world, it's a bit intimidating when you start to write for yourself. You want your songs to hold their own, but you have to compare to the songs you've covered -- there is a standard there.” Harris took the dive into composition on Red Dirt Girl and comes back to the process on Hard Bargain.
Harris’ subject matter ranges from deeply personal, to playful, to politics. Musically her brush paints a wider array of colors than recent album, which have been mainly ballad driven. The repetitive tempo often blurred the distinction between tracks. Not so here. Harris mixes tempo and mood which allows individual tracks to shine. She does this by employing only 2 other musicians to work with her. Producer Jay Joyce handles guitars, keyboards and as sundry instruments while Giles Reaves covers drums, percussion and keyboards. Harris exclusively handles backing vocals. Although Joyce has a history of producing great records you can’t help but notice influences from Harris’ past albums. The layered guitars that blanket Harris’ delicate vocals and echoing production of “Home Sweet Home” and “The Ship on His Arm” sound a lot like Daniel Lanios work on Wrecking Ball. At other points echoes of Harris’ 1983 release White Shoes can be heard, particularly on punk-a-billy “Six White Cadillacs.”
Not surprisingly, Harris, who is 64 years old, shares moments of reflection and lets you in on intimate emotions. “The Road” is a paean toher mentor Gram Parsons who died at age 26 in 1973. Clearly his memory remains strong and Harris’ loyalty to him hasn’t wavered. The most touching moment on the album is “Darlin’ Kate” her tribute to longtime friend Kate McGarrigle who died last year at age 63. The song is a testament to the connection the two shared and features banjo and piano, two instruments strongly associated with McGarrigle's songs.
Harris tackles political issues with “My Name is Emmett Till” a retelling of the infamous and racially motivated murder of a black teenager in Mississippi in 1955. “New Orleans” recounts the damage associated with Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath.
Not all of Harris’ personal renderings are somber. “Big Black Dog,”dedicated to Bella, one of Harris’ many rescue dogs, tells the tale of her rescue from the pound. It’s a simple but fun song that offers a glimpse into the singer’s personal life. By the way, Bella now accompanies Ms. Harris on tour. It is Emmylou’s ability to pull from so many musical and personal experience that makes her songs so relatable.