Emmylou Harris burst on to the music world when the late Gram Parsons brought her into his band. Over the course of two albums and an endless number of tour dates, Parsons and Harris created some of the most beautiful harmonies since Johnny and June Carter Cash in the ’60s. As much as I love Roy Orbison, I feel that the Parsons/Harris duet of Orbison’s “Love Hurts” remains the definitive version of the song. When Parsons became another victim to drugs, Harris forged her own legendary career, while almost single-handedly keeping Parsons’s legacy alive. She also continued to lend her lovely voice to the work of some of music’s most important artists, including Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Cash and Orbison, while championing many up and coming singer/songwriters, much as Parsons had done for her. To this day, her harmonies will appear backing up some of the finest musicians around. Here are just six of her most memorable appearances in the past 20 years.
“Oh My Sweet Carolina,” Ryan Adams (download)
In 1999, Harris approached Ryan Adams (then still leading the alt-country band Whiskeytown) to perform Parsons’ “The Return of the Grievous Angel” with her for an episode of Sessions at West 54th. Adams quickly said “yes,” despite his fear of singing with one of his idols. Harris soon returned the favor when she sang harmony vocals on Adams’ first solo album, Heartbreaker. The way their vocals blend on this song, one of Adams’ most poignant, reflective ballads, really brings to mind some of the wonderful Parsons/Harris duets.
“Greenville,” Lucinda Williams (download)
Lucinda Williams kicked around the music scene for nearly two decades, releasing four critically acclaimed (but little heard) records, before finally breaking through with her brilliant Car Wheels on a Gravel Road in 1998. She met Emmylou Harris in the early ’90s and the two became fast friends, sharing similar styles and approaches to country music. Harris would record Williams’ “Sweet Old World” for her Daniel Lanois-produced gem Wrecking Ball, and then lend a hand on this song from Car Wheels on a Gravel Road.
“Nothin’ Without You,” Steve Earle (download)
Writing in the liner notes of Train A Comin’, the first of his two comeback albums after being released from prison (the other being the classic I Feel Alright), Steve Earle had this to say about Emmylou Harris: “The first time I met Emmylou, she came in to sing on Guy Clark’s first album. She gave me half of her cheeseburger. I wasn’t the same for weeks. ” I think that’s all that needs to be said.
“Across the Great Divide,” Nanci Griffith (download)
The inspiration of Griffith’s 1993 Grammy-winning Other Voices, Other Rooms album came from a conversation Griffith was having with her friend, Harris, about artists performing the works of other songwriters, in this case, the late Kate Wolf. Harris said, “songs need new voices to sing them in places they’ve never been sung in order to stay alive.” Thus, Griffith began compiling a list of songs by her favorite songwriters, including this lovely number by Wolf that features Harris singing harmony.
“Godspeed (Sweet Dreams)” Radney Foster (download)
A relative unknown to the general public, Radney Foster has written some tender, beautiful songs that have been covered by others, including this song that the Dixie Chicks included on their Home album. Several years ago Jeff Giles wrote a nice piece about the genesis of this song explaining that Foster’s ex-wife took their son to live in Europe (against Foster’s impassioned objections), so the songwriter wrote this song for the boy to listen to anytime and to think of his dad. The Chicks version is nice, but hearing the words sung by Foster (with Harris’s otherworldly soprano floating around in the background) and knowing that they were written for the child he misses, makes this one of the most heartbreaking ballads you’ll ever hear.
“Long Road,” Patty Griffin (download)
I can’t say much more about Patty Griffin that my good friend, Jon Cummings, didn’t already say in his superlative Popdose guide to Patty Griffin last week. So, I’ll leave you with this haunting song about a funeral from Griffin’s masterpiece, 1000 Kisses.