Thursday, September 30, 2004:

the spiritual and the secular

Emmylou Harris -- Wayfaring Stranger
Emmylou Harris -- Red Dirt Girl
I've been wanting to post about Emmylou Harris since I started this ... longer than that, really--ever since Sean at Said the Gramophone asked me to guest blog last month. But most people I play Emmylou for have decided ahead of time that they don't want to hear it (it's the same way with Don Williams). I'm not sure why; maybe most country music carries a stigma with it, the way hip hop used to (does still?) (Johnny Cash is badass enough to make country cool; most others fail for some reason). And that's a huge issue I'd rather not get into--various prejudices--let's just say I think more often than not people miss something cool by holding fast to rigid expectations. So I'm going to post a few country songs. It might not be your cup of tea, and I might scare everyone off, but I genuinely love these songs and think they have a larger appeal that's gone untapped.

What's cool about Emmylou Harris? Well, she does what she wants; she's charted a course of her own, exploring country, bluegrass, gospel, and pop, but she's done it without negating anyone else. She can point out differences but she's modest and respectful, accepting and unpretentious. She's open with her feelings: not afraid to be vulnerable, not pretending she's never hurt. But all this wouldn't amount to much more than an extraordinary woman if not for the singing. With the singing, she's an extraordinary woman who can knock your socks off.

"Wayfaring Stranger" is a traditional song with a modern arrangement, describing life as a journey through a painful world, the narrator focused on a Heavenly destination. The song is from Harris' 1980 bluegrass album Roses in the Snow, which faced some resistance at her label before finally being released and quickly going gold. I think Harris's singing and Ricky Skagg's harmonizing are both beautiful, and the fiddle and mandolin are nice touches, but that dobro--wow. It's understated and brief; it could preach at length, and I wish it would. But, like the narrator, it's in service of a higher purpose; it does its part and says farewell. The song is lovely and confident in its optimism (or is it fatalism?) It's enough to make an agnostic sit up and question lack of belief.

"Red Dirt Girl" is the title track from Harris' 2000 country-pop album and is, thematically, the polar opposite. It's a song about discontent and thwarted ambition, about being trapped by your finances, settling for less and trying to forget that you've done so. The lyrics were inspired by Boys Don't Cry, but the basic story is much different. The song definitely feels true; and I think there's something to be said for Emmylou Harris' skills as a lyricist ("Michelangelo," "Bang the Drum Slowly," and "My Antonia," off that same album, are also excellent).
Fan site with a brief biography and discography
[Roses in the Snow]
[Red Dirt Girl]


Post a Comment

<< Home