Posts Tagged ‘Ballad of Sally Rose’

(As noted in my first Essentials entry, this is an occasional series in which I spotlight albums that, in my estimation, everyone should experience at least once.)

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

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

ByrdsGreatestHits

In today’s world, music discovery is a breeze. You hear something, maybe on the soundtrack to a favorite TV show, and odds are you can immediately sample it on YouTube, Spotify or Apple Music. Maybe you hop over to Allmusic or Wikipedia to read about the artist and, if so desired, follow the imbedded links to acts that influenced him or her and that, in turn, he or she may have inspired. And for anyone who belongs to a subscription service, which seems to be more people every month, you generally have their entire catalogs at your fingertips to explore at once – unless it’s Neil Young, the Beatles or a few other outlier acts, of course.

In the abstract, it sounds great. In practice, however, I’m not sure it’s a good thing. It seems to guarantee many artists will be written off simply because listeners aren’t ready for them. Years long ago, just as now, Act A led to acts B, C, D and E, but the process played out over a period of time. The upside: You gradually became acclimated to the stylistic differences between acts A and E through repeated playings of B, C and D. (A and E are both vowels, but they don’t sound the same. That’s my point.)

Emmylou-Harris-Elite-HotelAnyway, I mentioned two posts back that, of late, I’ve been enjoying the high-res fidelity of Emmylou Harris’ Elite Hotel. I first bought it and Emmy’s Pieces of the Sky (on a 2-for-1 cassette) on the same March day in 1985, a few weeks after picking up Ballad of Sally Rose on vinyl. It was the culmination of what, in retrospect, was a trek that began in 1980, when I was 15, with the purchase of the Byrds’ Greatest Hits LP. If the journey had been condensed into a few weeks or months, I doubt I would have been ready for Emmy’s crystalline take on country music. That first listen of Sally Rose made me want to explore her oeuvre; and after checking into her Elite Hotel, well, that was that. I’ve been a fan ever since.

The Byrds’ Greatest Hits —> the Byrds’ Younger Than Yesterday, which – thanks to Chris Hillman – had several country-flavored songs —> the Byrds’ hardcore country Sweetheart of the Rodeo LP, purchased used because it was out-of-print at the time —> Gram Parsons’ G.P. and Grievous Angel, both of with feature Emmy on vocals —> Emmylou.

(It goes without saying, but I’ll say it, anyway: the Byrds’ Greatest Hits also led me to Bob Dylan and the Flying Burrito Brothers. Those are Top 5s for another day, however.)

1) The Byrds – “Turn, Turn, Turn.”

2)  The Byrds – “The Girl With No Name.”

3) The Byrds – “Hickory Wind.”

4) Gram Parsons with Emmylou Harris – “That’s All It Took.”

5) Emmylou Harris – “Sweet Dreams.”

So I stuck my hand into a pile of ticket stubs and came up with this:

IMG_3136

Nowadays, country music is all the rage amongst the younger set thanks to Taylor Swift and the countless hunky hat acts, plus whoever else is considered hot. In the early and mid 1980s, however, the first wave of the MTV generation – especially here in the northeast – saw and heard country as little more than an extension of The Beverly Hillbillies and Hee-Haw. I.e., corny. We were more about big hair, thin ties, synth pop and…

Well, “we” wasn’t me. I followed the same fashion sense then that I do now: jeans, T-shirt and, often, untucked flannel shirt. Don’t get me wrong – I liked (and still like) my share of the era’s pop acts. It doesn’t get any better than the Go-Go’s and Bangles, for instance. But I digress…only to digress again:

Somewhere in there, and I can’t remember exactly when beyond a vague “sometime in 1981 or ‘82,” my appreciation of the Byrds launched via their Greatest Hits LP, a solid 11-song set originally released in early 1967. That led me to investigate their other albums, including one that, at the time, was long out of print – the country-flavored Sweetheart of the Rodeo with Gram Parsons. That, in turn, led to the Flying Burrito Brothers and then Parsons’ two solo albums, GP and Return of the Grievous Angel, both of which featured – and, yes, this is the end of this roundabout intro – Emmylou Harris.

According to my desk calendar, I purchased her brand-new Ballad of Sally Rose LP on February 17th, 1985 (and liked it so much that, in a few weeks, I also bought it on cassette). Perhaps not her best work, but a work that interested me nonetheless due to its connection with Gram, who inspired it. This leadoff song, especially, drew me in –

The next song, “Rhythm Guitar,” became another favorite…

As did “Woman Walk the Line”:

By month’s end (March 29th, to be precise) I was at the Academy of Music in Philadelphia – the first time I saw her, and my first time inside that hallowed hall. She started with a set of her older tunes, took a break and then returned for a second set that featured the Sally Rose album from start to finish. In between the two sets, she said, she received flowers with a note requesting a specific song that she and the Hot Band hadn’t rehearsed. She thought “Heart to Heart” might fit the bill instead:

In any event, I wrote in my desk calendar that it was a “great show” – the second-best concert I’d seen to that point in time. I wish I remembered more.