11:49am

Wed April 27, 2011
Spotlight on Country

Emmylou Harris: An Invigorating, Inviting 'Hard Bargain'

Originally published on Tue July 1, 2014 12:08 pm

Emmylou Harris sings with a steadfast purity that can be starkly beautiful; it can also be coldly distancing. Over the years, her public image has coalesced around the idea of a serene singer-songwriter whose elegance and wisdom is signaled by her silver-gray hair. It takes a lot to get a rise out of Harris, but producer Jay Joyce has succeeded on Hard Bargain. You can hear it in the way he's collaborated with her in a song such as "New Orleans," a rare flood-tide of emotion set to a drum-slamming up-beat — rare for Harris, and welcome.

Harris is in a nostalgic mood in "The Road," a song addressed to Gram Parsons, with whom she made the excellent albums Grievous Angel and Sleepless Nights. Parsons recognized that her surging harmonies worked well in contrast to his baleful croon. For her part, Harris acknowledges in "The Road" that Parsons pushed her to be more daring in every way.

"The Road" is one of two songs on Hard Bargain addressed to a friend who's gone. The other is "Darlin' Kate," a fond farewell to the great singer-songwriter Kate McGarrigle, who died of cancer last year. Harris' choice of poetic language may verge on the trite — even The Simpsons and Ronald Reagan have appropriated John Gillespie Magee's phrase "slipped the surly bonds of Earth." But it's the ache in Harris' voice that delivers the true emotion.

Hard Bargain is the most eclectic and loose-fitting album Emmylou Harris has made in a long time. She flashes a rare sense of goofy humor in "Big Black Dog," which is about precisely what its title suggests. But there are also weak spots here. Her song about Emmett Till doesn't work as either folk-blues or as social commentary. The plaintive "Lonely Girl" is Harris in a drippy moment. But give her a song as crisp and direct as Ron Sexsmith's title tune, and Harris can still pay off on a musical hard bargain.

At this point in her career, Harris is an inviolate folkie madonna — a small-m madonna, to be sure. She'll always have her devoted core following that values her mannerliness and purity. But an album as lively as Hard Bargain deserves a wider audience; it benefits, I'm guessing, from having been recorded in just one month. It's less fussy, and more invigorating and inviting, than most of what Harris has sung since she first started out with Gram Parsons.

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Transcript

TERRY GROSS, host:

Our rock critic Ken Tucker has a review of Emmylou Harris' new album "Hard Bargain." She first came to prominence in the early '70s for her work with country-rock pioneer Gram Parsons. Her new album includes a new song about her days with Parsons, as well as a tribute to her late friend, the singer-songwriter Kate McGarrigle.

This is one of her new songs from the album. It's called "Home Sweet Home."

(Soundbite of song, "Home Sweet Home")

Ms. EMMYLOU HARRIS (Singer, Songwriter): (Singing) I live out here, in the wind and the pouring rain. (unintelligible) 14,000 (unintelligible). In the summer...

KEN TUCKER: Emmylou Harris sings with a steadfast purity that can be starkly beautiful. It can also be coldly distancing. Over the years, her public image has coalesced around the idea of a serene singer-songwriter whose elegance and wisdom is signaled by her immaculate, silver-gray hair.

One thing I'm trying to say here is that it takes a lot to get a rise out of Emmylou, but producer Jay Joyce has succeeded. You can hear it in the way he's collaborated with her on a song such as "New Orleans," a rare flood-tide of emotion set to a drum-slamming up-beat rare for Harris, and welcome.

(Soundbite of song, "New Orleans")

Ms. HARRIS: (Singing) My Lord, how the rains came down. Water's been a mighty sign(ph). When the levies broke that day, washing all those souls away. (unintelligible) We took you to a (unintelligible).

It takes it more than a hurricane (unintelligible) Pontratrain. Oh, we broke the chains in New Orleans, New Orleans.

TUCKER: Harris is in a nostalgic mood in "The Road," a song addressed to Gram Parsons, with whom she made a couple of excellent albums, "Grievous Angel" and "Sleepless Nights." Parsons recognized that her surging harmonies worked well in contrast to his own baleful croon. For her part, Harris acknowledges in "The Road" that Parsons pushed her to be more daring in every way.

(Soundbite of song, "The Road")

Ms. HARRIS: (Singing) I can still remember every song you played, long ago when we were younger and we rocked the night away. How could I see a future then, where you would not grow old? With such a fire in our bellies, such a hunger in our souls.

I guess I probably lost, lost control of the time. It seemed that we were traveling near some old lucky sign. I know I didn't see it, and no one was to blame, but the road we shared together once will never be the same.

TUCKER: "The Road" is one of two songs on this album addressed to a friend who's gone. The other is "Darlin' Kate," a fond farewell to the great singer-songwriter Kate McGarrigle, who died of cancer last year. Harris' choice of poetic language may verge on the trite - even "The Simpsons" and Ronald Reagan have appropriated John Gillespie Magee's phrase: slipped the surly bonds of Earth. But it's the ache in Harris' voice that delivers the true emotion.

(Soundbite of song, "Darlin' Kate")

Ms. HARRIS: (Singing) So the time had come, you had left this world. But we'll miss our Kate, our darlin' one. We held your hand, kissed your lovely brow and bid farewell.

You're sailing now, free from the pain. You laid that burden down, while your strong and giving heart will surely be your command, as you slip the surely bonds of earth and sail away. Perhaps we will meet again somehow someday. Until then, there's nothing we can do but wait to see once more our darlin' Kate.

TUCKER: "Hard Bargain" is certainly the most eclectic and loose-fitting album Emmylou Harris has made in a long time. There are weak spots on this album. Her song about Emmett Till doesn't work as either folk-blues or as social commentary. The plaintive "Lonely Girl" is Harris in a drippy moment. But give her a song as crisp and direct as Ron Sexsmith's title tune, and Harris can still pay off on a musical hard bargain.

(Soundbite of song, "Hard Bargain")

Ms. HARRIS: (Singing) I'm a bit run down, but I'm okay. Just feel like calling it a day. But you send me back to the start. You drive a hard bargain.

TUCKER: At this point in her career, Harris is a sacrosanct folkie madonna - a small-m madonna, to be sure. She'll always have her devoted core following that values her mannerliness and purity. But an album as lively as "Hard Bargain" deserves a wider audience. It benefits, I'm guessing, from having been recorded in just one month. It's less fussy, more invigorating and inviting than most of what Harris has sung since she first started out with Gram Parsons.

GROSS: Ken Tucker is editor-at-large for Entertainment Weekly. He reviewed "Hard Bargain," the new album from Emmylou Harris. You can hear the complete album on the website: nprmusic.org.

Coming up, John Powers considers the legacy of writer David Foster Wallace, who took his life two-and-a-half years ago.

This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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