Archive for the ‘Emmylou Harris’ Category

(Photo by Diane Wilkes)

I witnessed the past, present and future of country music this week – not once, but twice.

Last night, before a sold-out house at Memorial Hall on the UNC campus in Chapel Hill, N.C., Emmylou Harris and band traveled down country music’s historic highways and lesser-known byways, as well as a few roads she paved herself.

The 20-song set surveyed her storied career, in other words, which has often found her giving new life to old classics. Songs by the Louvin Brothers, Les Paul and Mary Ford, Bill Monroe, the Country Gentlemen and Merle Haggard – all of which she’s also recorded – were sprinkled throughout the show, though for me the night’s highlight was her rendition of Billy Joe Shaver’s “Old Five and Dimers Like Me.” She recorded it for her 2008 All I Intended to Be album but, as she explained while introducing it, identifies with the lyrics all the more now that she’s 72. Other highlights included a rockin’ rendition of Neil Young’s “Long May You Run” (which she recorded back in ’82) and the encore, her own “Boulder to Birmingham.”

Two nights earlier, before a sparse crowd at the Local 506 club in Chapel Hill, Kelsey Waldon and her crack band razed the roof with a high-octane sonic concoction that barely left the rest of the building’s structure intact. The performance rocked the soul, in other words. Over the course of an 80-minute set, the Kentucky born-and-bred country singer-songwriter demonstrated that all the good press she’s been getting is well deserved. She’s a force to be reckoned with.

“Kentucky 1988,” from her recent White Noise/White Lines album, was one highlight:

Another: “Lived and Let Go,” which was the second half of a two-song acoustic set.

She also performed a few covers, opening with Bill Monroe’s “Travelin’ Down This Lonesome Road” (which she recorded on her 2016 I’ve Got a Way album) and including a rockin’ rendition of Neil Young’s “Are You Ready for the Country” mid-set. (In the past, as I discovered this morning, she’s also covered Neil’s “Powderfinger” – wish I’d heard that this night. But c’est la vie.) She also placed Bill Withers “Heartbreak Road” as the penultimate song of the night, right before her own “All by Myself.” The combination, and thematic interplay between the two, was perfect.

Back in the ‘70s, Emmy’s oeuvre was essentially a sonic bridge between country music’s past, present and future. It still is. And, in almost every respect, Kelsey’s doing the same. Maybe she’s not re-introducing yesteryear classics to modern listeners at the same rate that Emmy once did, but she’s definitely digging up and sharing the genre’s roots all the same. At its best, after all, country music relates and celebrates the ups and downs, foibles and fables, heartaches and heartbreaks, of common folk. That’s what Kelsey does in her songs. If or when she comes to your town, don’t think twice. Go see her.

Emmylou 11/8/2019: Easy From Now On; One of These Days; Millworker; How High the Moon; Ooh Las Vegas; Red Dirt Girl; Get Up John; Calling My Children Home; Kern River; Making Believe; If I Needed You; Pancho & Lefty; Goin’ Back to Harlan; Old Five and Dimers Like Me; Michelangelo; Tulsa Queen; Wheels; Born to Run; Long May You Run; Boulder to Birmingham

Kelsey 11/6/2019: Travelin’ This Lonesome Road; Kentucky 1988; Havin’ Hard Times; High in Heels; Anyhow; Sunday’s Children; Run Away; White Noise/White Lines; You Can Have It; Are You Ready for the Country; There Must Be Someone; New Song; Lived and Let Go; Black Patch; Dirty Old Town; Very Old Barton; The Heartbreak; Heartbreak Road; All by Myself

In February 1985. Emmylou Harris released her 11th album, The Ballad of Sally Rose. I bought it on vinyl on the 17th of that month, a Sunday, and liked it so much that, a few weeks later, I picked it up on cassette so that I could listen to it while driving my new old car, a ’79 Chevette. I also scored tickets to see her at the Academy of Music in Philly around the same time. In my Of Concerts Past piece about that show, I mentioned that it’s not necessarily her best work. It is, however, one of her most ambitious efforts. A true flawed masterpiece.

A concept album inspired by her relationship with Gram Parsons, the songs – written by Emmy and her husband at the time, Paul Kennerly – chart the story of a young woman who falls for a charismatic singer only to be wooed away from him by the promise of stardom. And just when she realizes her mistake and sets out to rejoin him…he dies in a car crash. Bad news, huh?

The scan, by the way, is of the flyer handed out at that 1985 concert, and it explains the story in a bit more depth.

As with many concept albums, the set’s weakness comes from having to tell a cohesive story over a succession of songs that also need to be able to stand alone. While the music remains strong throughout, lyrically a few tracks fall short. The flip side is this: Many are just plain great. The title cut, which kicks off the album, for instance, would have been at home on any of Emmy’s non-concept albums:

As I note in that Of Concerts Past piece, “Rhythm Guitar” and “Woman Walk the Line” are memorable, too. Likewise, the rest of Side One – up until “Bad News,” which doesn’t quite work. Side Two has its moments, as well, and the closing “Sweet Chariot” is sheer genius.

Here’s a YouTube playlist of the album in full:

Side One:

  1. The Ballad of Sally Rose
  2. Rhythm Guitar
  3. I Think I Love Him
  4. Heart to Heart
  5. Woman Walk the Line
  6. Bad News
  7. Timberline

Side Two:

  1. Long Tall Sally Rose
  2. White Line
  3. Diamond in My Crown
  4. The Sweetheart of the Rodeo
  5. KSOS
  6. Sweet Chariot

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The lights dimmed, curtains parted and a spellbinding “My Songbird” wafted through billowy, bluish clouds as if an ethereal creature in flight. Strumming an acoustic guitar, Emmylou Harris stood center stage at the Keswick Theatre in Glenside, Pa., a near-silhouette, surrounded by what seemed to be three shadows – Daniel Lanois on guitar, Darryl Johnson on bass and Brady Blade on drums.

First, though a little context: On September 26th, Emmylou released the Lanois-produced Wrecking Ball, an atmospheric album that departed from the country-folk terrain she’d mined for the previous quarter century. That’s a bit of an over-simplification, I know, but prior to Wrecking Ball she mixed and matched songs and genres within the construct of the traditional country-folk sound. At a show we saw in 1991, for instance, she was joined on stage by Chet Atkins, performed a bluegrass breakdown, and also sang Steve Earle’s “Guitar Town” and Dion’s “Abraham, Martin & John.” Wrecking Ball, however, and the tour(s) that followed swapped the country overtones for a thick and rich gumbo that was equal parts noir, impressionistic and heartfelt.

Here’s “Deeper Well” from a few weeks later:

And “Where Will I Be” –

Two decades on and my memories of the show are not so good, unfortunately. “Prayer in Open D,” my favorite song of hers, came early and was stunning.

And her take on Steve Earle’s “Goodbye” was even more masterful on stage than on album.

At the show’s end, Diane and I both walking out of the theatre open-jawed, blown away by what we’d witnessed.

One additional, non-music memory: Although we had excellent seats, as the picture of my ticket stub shows, we were not front row, but fourth. (It goes to the wacky way the Keswick names its rows.) In the row before us: a guy cradling a green knapsack in his lap that had two super-large microphones sticking out from either side. The result: a bootleg of the show is out there, somewhere, making the rounds…

The setlist: My Songbird; Prayer in Open D; Waterfall; Where Will I Be; Orphan Girl; Wrecking Ball; Pancho & Lefty; Goin’ Back to Harlan; Deeper Well; Calling My Children Home; Green Pastures; One of These Days; Every Grain of Sand; Sweet Old World; Blackhawk; Big Chief/Indian Red; Goodbye; Making Believe; The Maker; All My Tears; How Far Am I From Canaan; You Don’t Miss Your Water

The year 1985 is likely best remembered for the simultaneous Live Aid concerts that occurred in London and Philadelphia on Saturday, July 13th. There were many performances that day and night – some good, some not, and many somewhere in-between – but the one that probably had the biggest impact, at least in the U.S., was U2’s. Their 18-minute set epitomized, and still epitomizes, everything good about this crazy little thing called rock ’n’ roll.

In every other respect, the year – like 1986 – was a transitional time. I wrote about it in my Top 5 for April 1985, so hopefully won’t repeat too much of myself here. In short: America was still rebounding from back-to-back recessions that occurred earlier in the decade. Unemployment stood at 7.3 percent at year’s start and fell to 6.7 by year’s end. Inflation was, thankfully, almost a non-entity, averaging 3.6 percent; and since the average wage increased by 4.26 percent from 1984, that meant most employed folks came out .66 percent ahead.

me_chevette_85As I’ve mentioned before, in ’85 I worked part-time as a department-store sales associate and, during the summer, worked full-time hours. I had no complaints. I had a car – a 1979 Chevette, dubbed the “Hankmobile” by my folks because I plastered an “I’m a Fan of Hank Jr.” bumper sticker on the back. (Yes, I was – and remain, to an extent – a fan of Hank’s, though that’s grist for another post somewhere down the road.) The Hankmobile got the job done – perhaps not in style, but so what? I bought a tape player, installed it and was good to go. (That’s me, sometime that summer, beside the car.)

Among the year’s top films: Back to the Future, The Goonies, The Breakfast Club, Weird Science, St. Elmo’s Fire, The Color Purple, Witness, Rocky IV and Rambo: First Blood Part II. Back to the Future and The Breakfast Club rank among my most-watched films of all time – just as my wife can watch Remember the Titans ad infinitum, I can watch those over and over and over again.

The year’s top songs included “Careless Whisper” and “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” by Wham!; “Like a Virgin and “Crazy for You” by Madonna; “I Want to Know What Love Is” by Foreigner; “I Feel for You” by Chaka Khan; “Out of Touch” by Hall & Oates; “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” by Tears for Fears; “Money for Nothing” by Dire Straits; “We Are the World” by USA for Africa; and, yep, “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” by Simple Minds.

The year’s top news stories included President Reagan’s controversial visit to a Bitburg, Germany, military cemetery; and the hijacking of the Achille Lauro cruise ship by Palestinian terrorists. Closer to home: the Philadelphia Flyers’ phenomenal goalie, Pelle Lindbergh, died in a car accident; and Philadelphia mayor Wilson Goode dropped a bomb on the city – literally – that caused 65 homes to go up in flames.

For me, the year is noteworthy for other reasons, too: After two years of commuter-college life at Penn State’s Ogontz campus (now known as Penn State Abington), I headed to the mothership, University Park, in State College, Pa., in late August. It was, indeed, a “Happy Valley.” I had a good roommate that first year, made good friends (one of whom became my roommate my second year), and – like most everyone else I knew – partied way too much. I joined the Folk Show staff on WPSU, contributed to a quarterly student magazine, and discovered the joy of selling plasma twice a week.

That same fall, an independent record store opened in town: City Lights Records, where I often whiled away time and money. Here’s a student film from 2008 that tells its story:

img_2094Anyway, enough of the introduction; it’s time for today’s Top 5: 1985. As in, my Top 5 albums from that storied year… (all of which, small surprise, I’ve previously featured in these pages.)

1) Lone Justice – Lone Justice. Two words – and one name – as to why this tops my list: Maria McKee. The Little Diva, as she was nicknamed at some point in her career, is absolutely riveting throughout. Truth be told, to my ears, when she sings – whether with Lone Justice or on any of her stellar solo albums (and they’re all stellar), there’s no one better. Ever. That’s how I feel in the moment, at least. True, the delirium passes when the music ends, but man! I never want it to end.

2) The Long Ryders – State of Our Union. I wrote in my Top 5: Summer 1985 list that the Ryders “basically laid down the blueprint of the alt.country/Americana movement a decade before it became popular”; and this LP, to my ears, is their tour de force. As with Lone Justice’s debut, it’s an album – originally vinyl, then CD and now that CD digitalized as FLAC files – that I’ve returned to time and again through the decades. It never gets old. “State of My Union,” a Chuck Berry-infused, tongue-in-cheek tour of the South, is one of my favorite tracks, but they’re all great.

3) John Cougar Mellencamp – Scarecrow. A damn good album. “Minutes to Memories,” which I featured in my Top 5 for October 1985, is one highlight; “Small Town” is another. On this album, and the one (Lonesome Jubilee) that followed, Mellencamp tackled subjects and themes – the rural reality of the Reagan Age and small-town life, primarily – too often avoided by his rock ’n’ roll peers, no doubt because they hadn’t lived it. He had, and it shows.

4) Emmylou Harris – Ballad of Sally Rose. I’m sure I rank this higher than most would, but it’s the album that made this boy a fan. As I wrote in my remembrance of her 1985 concert at the Academy of Music in Philadelphia, I bought it on vinyl on February 17th; picked up a double-album cassette of Pieces of the Sky and Elite Hotel on March 2nd; and saw her play Sally Rose from start to finish on March 29th. Perhaps it was that condensed introduction – some might say, instant obsession – with her music, but…wow. This set still packs an emotional punch. (For those not aware, it’s a fictionalized account of her relationship with Gram Parsons.)

5) Rosanne Cash – Rhythm & Romance. And, finally… Rosie! As I explained in that Summer 1985 piece, I discovered Rosie and this album via VH1.

And a few runners-up…

The Three O’Clock – Arrive Without Traveling

10,000 Maniacs – The Wishing Chair

Jane Wiedlin – Jane Wieldin

Pete Townshend – White City: A Novel