After first hearing Emmylou Harris' voice in the mid-'70s, a playful Johnny Cash wondered if he hadn't dreamed the whole thing. It was, he recalled, like listening to an angel. Bob Dylan was so enthralled around the same time by the loveliness of Harris' tender soprano that she ended up singing with him on his next album.
The reactions are typical, from artists within her country music base and beyond--admirers also include John Fogerty and Bruce Springsteen, Paul Simon and James Taylor, all of whom have had their songs recorded by the Alabama native, who grew up in the Washington, D.C., area.
Despite the esteem of Harris' peers, the level of her achievements during nearly a quarter of a century hasn't penetrated the full pop community.
One reason is that country continues to be the genre of pop that enjoys the least critical respect among the media and mainstream audience. Harris, too, has refused to make the commercial compromises, in both song selection and arrangements, that would have targeted the pop audience more strategically.
"Portraits," a three-disc retrospective just released by Reprise Records, helps put Harris' career in perspective. The package, which contains 61 songs that she recorded between 1975 and 1992, asserts a universality and a character that make it one of the most consistent and substantial bodies of work in all of modern pop.
Thanks to its range and depth, "Portraits" is the rare boxed set by a single artist that deserves a place alongside packages devoted to entire labels, such as Sun and Chess. It is an illuminating work that celebrates the optimism and resolve of the human spirit--so rich in American musical roots, from rock and gospel to country and blues, that it has the feel of a Smithsonian exhibit.
Often with boxed sets, an artist's creative stature is actually diminished because we see how a career can be built on simply the appeal of a few recorded moments. By adding 40 or 50 tracks to those key works to justify a pricey set, record companies point out the sometimes shocking narrowness of an artist's vision.
In this case, however, the three-plus hours of music actually add to our understanding of Harris' work, reminding us, among other things, how revolutionary an artist she has been: a woman operating in a country field dominated for years by men--and a singer who set the creative tone in an era in which songwriters have ruled.
More than any single Harris album, "Portraits" helps us appreciate the glow of her musical vision, which was largely shaped by the late Gram Parsons. He was the influential singer-songwriter who used his soulful mix of country and rock strains in the late '60s and early '70s to explore such themes as innocence and desire, sin and salvation.
Raised on folk and rock, Harris dropped out of the University of North Carolina in the late '60s to move to New York to pursue a music career. She made an album, "Gliding Bird," in 1970 for Jubilee Records before meeting Parsons, and the record was largely a disaster. On material ranging from Dylan to Bacharach-David, Harris sounded lost vocally, failing to define the lyrics in any meaningful way.
After retreating home to Washington, she met Parsons, who introduced her to the heart of country music, from the Louvin Brothers to George Jones, and passed on to her the soulfulness of his own vision. The pair toured and recorded together.
"Boulder to Birmingham," the centerpiece of Harris' first Reprise album, was inspired partly by Parsons' 1973 death, and fittingly it opens the boxed set. Even after all these years, her vocal on the song sounds heaven-sent as she reaches the upper registers and holds the key notes for an extra heartbeat.
The song, co-written by Harris and Bill Danoff, is a reflection on the conflicting emotions of someone who has gone through a devastating loss yet is infused with the will to continue:
Well you really got me this time
And the hardest part is knowing I'll survive
I've come to listen for the sound
Of the trucks as they move down out on 95
And pretending it's the ocean
Coming down to wash me clean
Since then, Harris has both dug deeply into country music history for material and reached out to young writers, making the cosmic musings of Townes Van Zandt's "Pancho & Lefty" seem quite at home in the boxed set alongside the Carter Family's "Hello Stranger."
In the process, she has reintroduced country audiences to their bluegrass and rural roots and liberated honky-tonk anthems by infusing them with a sense of contemporary sophistication. While all aspects of her Reprise and Warner Bros. years are touched on in "Portraits," the collection leans to songs from her first four albums--the music that introduced and largely defined her style, including "Too Far Gone," "Together Again" and "Luxury Liner." It also features three previously unreleased tracks, including versions of Don McLean's sweet "And I Love You So" and Richard Thompson's brooding "Dimming of the Day."
What emerges chiefly in "Portraits," however, is the story of an artist on a spiritual journey, a search for truth and faith that is very much in keeping with Parsons' own musical path. The difference is that Harris' world isn't as dark and tortured as much of Parsons' was.
Like so many other veteran artists, Harris finds it hard to get exposure any longer on country radio. So her current label, Asylum Records, is trying to build a new audience for her with the adult alternative crowd.
Yet the shift to Asylum--where she is now working with producer Daniel Lanois, whose credits include U2 and Peter Gabriel--hasn't caused Harris to abandon the integrity and character of her earlier work.
"Maybe I was naive, but I always believed that people who liked whatever I was doing liked it because it was an honest effort and my heart was in it," she said last week. "If I ever did anything that my heart wasn't in, not only would I not reach the other fans, I would betray a certain trust between me and the audience."
In a pop world cluttered with calculation and compromise, "Portraits" stands as a testimony to that artistic trust.
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**** EMMYLOU HARRIS, "Portraits," Reprise
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Courtesy of Reprise Records