Emmylou Harris Songbird: Rare Tracks & Forgotten Gems Review

Compilation. Released 2007.  

BBC Review

Friend of Gram Parsons, alt country icon and all-round wonderful singer. Emmylou's...

Jon Lusk 2007

Emmylou Harris is that rare bird; an artist who seems to typify a genre (in this case, country), while still somehow remaining outside its mainstream/establishment and frequently experimenting with a wide variety of other genres. Over the years she has strayed into country rock, rock, folk, gospel, bluegrass and even jazz (“How High The Moon”), and perhaps the biggest surprise of all was her late blossoming role as a writer after spending most of the first two decades of her career strictly as an interpreter. Yet, for an artist with such a lengthy and diverse back catalogue, Harris hasn’t been particularly well served by compilations. 2005’s The Very Best of Emmylou Harris: Heartaches And Highways disc gave a reasonable, though hardly comprehensive, overview of her hits, but this great 4CD collection does a good job of filling in the gaps left, focusing on more obscure, but equally deserving material.
The first two discs concentrate on her solo career, from 1969 all the way up to selections from the largely self-penned “Red Dirt Girl” (2000) and “Stumble into Grace” (2004), while discs 3 and 4 concentrate on previously un-issued material and outtakes, collaborations and special projects, many of which may have been overlooked by even the keenest of fans.
Only on the opening “Clocks” (an alternate version from 1969) does she sound like someone other than Emmylou; Joni Mitchell, to be precise. By the time she’s infamously dueting with Gram Parsons in the early ’70s on “The Angels Rejoiced Last Night” and “The Old Country Baptizing”, she’s found her voice. And what a great one it is. It has to be said that Dolly Parton does a better job of owning “Coat Of Many Colours”, and the dragging “For No One” should have been left to the Beatles. Harris is far better suited to material like “Satan’s Jewel Crown” and the magnificently rolling “Tulsa Queen”. “One Paper Kid” (a 1978 duet with Willie Nelson), is another highlight of the first disc.
Disc 2 covers the ’80s and ’90s, a period that includes such classic but often overlooked albums such as Thirteen, Bluebird, Brand New Dance and Cowgirl’s Prayer. The version of Bruce Springsteen’s “My Father’s House” is even better (and, if possible, starker) than the original and other gems here include the a cappella “Bright Morning Star” and “Ballad Of A Runaway Horse”. The selections from her astonishing mid-nineties comeback Wrecking Ball could perhaps have been a little more representative, but these are the artist’s choices, and fans will always hear things differently.
Across the less familiar 3rd and 4th discs, standouts are too numerous to mention. “Palms of Victory” is an eligible out-take from the 1978 Trio sessions with Parton and Linda Ronstadt, which shows how the record might have sounded with less record company interference. However, it’s maybe just as well her take on “Snowing on Raton” never made it onto Brand New Dance; Rosalie Sorrel’s 1995 version is far superior.
Surprises? The number of songs with a religious theme. How good she sounds with Mark Knopfler on their collaborations. Oh yes, and the fact there’s a DVD. I thought at first that 4 discs was excessive, but now feel that a fifth one highlighting her magnificent role as a backing vocalist (Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, Iris DeMent etc) might have been the icing on an already very rich cake. But that would have been a licensing nightmare…

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