"It's rare that an artist can do something like 'Wrecking Ball,' which was probably her 20th record, that is that much of a reinvention, that much of a leap of imagination, and possibly her greatest record up to that time," said David Bither, senior vice president of Nonesuch Records, the label that signed Harris five years after the release of "Wrecking Ball."
After joining Nonesuch, she made another breakthrough with "Red Dirt Girl," in which the woman who'd spent the previous quarter-century solidifying her reputation as one of the premier vocal interpreters in modern country suddenly blossomed as a songwriter, something she'd done to that point only sporadically, if impressively, on "Boulder to Birmingham" from the early "Pieces of the Sky."
"I kind of got my marching orders from Daniel Lanois and [revered Texas singer-songwriter] Guy Clark at the same time," she says. "After 'Wrecking Ball,' Dan said, 'You need to write for your next record.' Shortly after that, Guy — I was sitting across from them at their house one Christmas, with Rodney — and he said, 'You need to write your next record, and I don't care if it takes you five years.' And it did — it took me five years. But then I thought, 'OK, I have written, and I can at least try,' so that's what I did.
"The other thing was, I wanted to follow through. 'Wrecking Ball' was such a revelation to me: the sound and the intense emotion of the music, and I knew I wanted to keep in that sonic world. But I also knew the price you had to pay for that — because you have to make sacrifices to the music gods — was that I needed to bring something new to the table. … I don't play an instrument, I couldn't become a jazz singer; this is the voice that I have. So the only thing I could bring to the table was my own song."
She wrote or co-wrote 11 of the 13 songs on "Hard Bargain," looking outside only for the title track, by Canadian singer-songwriter Ron Sexsmith, and producer Jay Joyce's "Cross Yourself," both spiritually attuned songs.
Of Sexsmith's song, she says, "I heard it, I don't want to say as a spiritual, but I didn't hear it as a love song. Although I think it can be about a particular person, whether it's about a lover or a close friend, to me it was about the thing that keeps pulling us back into the world."
"I just turned 64," she says with more than a small tone of disbelief in her voice. "You remember back when the Beatles sang that and you thought, 'I'll never be 64.' It was like it was the end of the world. Now, it's not young, it's not old, it just is. So you're in that moment.
"I think one of the keys to any kind of peace in the world is to live in the moment. I guess that's why I love dogs so much, because they are so in the moment. They just keep bringing you back to that."