My Playlist: Emmylou Harris

While I had known her name for decades, it really wasn’t until July 2017 that I started paying closer attention to Emmylou Harris when seeing her in Philadelphia as part of a concert headlined by John Mellencamp. There was something special about this lady with her all-white hair who recently had turned 70. Now 73, Harris has been active for more than 50 years, released dozens of solo and collaborative albums, scored 20 top 10 hits on the Billboard country charts and collected numerous Grammy and other awards. This playlist is an attempt to shine a light on her long and impressive career.

Harris was born on April 2, 1947 in Birmingham, Ala. Her dad, Walter Harris, was a Marine Corps officer, while her mom Eugenia was a wartime military wife. After high school graduation in Woodbridge, Va., Harris went to the School of Music, Theater and Dance at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro on a drama scholarship. It was there where she started to learn songs by Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan and Joan Baez on guitar and develop her musical aspirations. Harris dropped out, moved to New York City during the second half of the ’60s, and started performing on the folk circle in Greenwich Village while waiting tables.

In 1969, Harris married fellow songwriter Tom Slocum who wrote the title track for her debut album Gliding Bird. The folk record also included five songs written by Harris. The label Jubilee Records went under shortly after the release, so all distribution and promotion was ceased. Subsequently, Harris disowned the record. She regards her second release Pieces of the Sky from February 1975 as her official debut.

In 1971, after he had seen her perform, Flying Burrito Brothers co-founder Chris Hillman introduced Harris to his music partner Gram Parsons who became a key figure in her early career. Harris worked with Parsons on his solo debut GP from January 1973 and toured as a member of his band the Fallen Angels. Later that year, she also worked with Parsons on his second and final solo album Grievous Angel, which was released in January 1974, following his death from an accidental overdose of drugs and alcohol in September 1973.

In February 1975, the aforementioned Pieces of the Sky appeared. It’s the album that launched Harris’ career as a country artist and established what she became mainly known, i.e., covering songs written by other artists. The album also coincided with the formation of The Hot Band, Harris’ high-profile backing band until 1991. The initial lineup included James Burton (guitar), Glen Hardin (piano), Hank DeVito (pedal steel guitar), Emory Gordy, Jr. (bass) and John Ware (drums).

To date, Harris has released 21 solo studio albums, three live records and a dozen compilations. Additionally, her impressive catalog includes seven collaboration albums with artists like Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt and Rodney Crowell. Harris also has worked as a guest with numerous other artists, including The Band, Glen Campbell, Johnny Cash, Guy Clark, Bob Dylan, Sheryl Crow and Steve Earle, among others. Let’s get to some music!

While perhaps not as representative of Harris as her other records, I’d like to kick off this playlist with a tune from 1969’s Gliding Bird, which was written by her: Black Gypsy.

If I Could Only Win Your Love from her second album Pieces of the Sky became Harris’ first hit single, climbing to no. 4 on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart in 1975. Co-written by Charlie Louvin and Ira Louvin who formed the country and gospel duo The Louvin Brothers, it also marked the first of only a handful of Harris singles that charted on the Billboard Hot 100, in this case at no. 58. Linda Ronstadt sang backing vocals on the album.

While Emmylou Harris is best known as a country artist, her song choices can be eclectic. Here’s an example from her third studio album Elite Hotel released in December 1975: A beautiful cover of The Beatles tune Here, There and Everywhere. Credited to John Lennon and Paul McCartney, the McCartney ballad originally appeared on the Revolver album from August 1996.

Harris’ next album Luxury Liner from December 1976 included the first cover of Townes Van Zandt’s Pancho and Lefty, which subsequently became the revered singer-songwriter’s best known composition. The tune has also been covered by other artists, most notably Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard, who recorded it as the title track of their collaboration album that came out in January 1983.

Roses in the Snow, Harris’ first ’80s album, appeared in May 1980. Unlike her preceding country and country rock records, this album was more bluegrass-oriented. Here’s a great rendition of the Paul Simon tune The Boxer, featuring beautiful harmony singing by Cheryl White and her sister Sharon White. The Boxer first appeared on Simon & Garfunkel’s final studio album Bridge Over Troubled Water from January 1970.

In February 1985, Harris released The Ballad of Sally Rose, a concept album loosely based on her relationship with Gram Parsons. The record also stood out for another reason. Like her debut 16 years earlier, it illustrates Harris is more than just a cover artist. All songs were co-written by her, mostly together with her then-second husband Paul Kennerley, an English singer-songwriter, musician and record producer, who also produced this record. Here’s White Line, one of the record’s two singles.

Next, I’d like to jump to the ’90s and Wrecking Ball, Harris’ 18th studio album. The record became her first since Pieces of the Sky that did not make the country charts. Perhaps that wasn’t too surprising, given the music moved away from her traditional acoustic to a more edgy and atmospheric sound. Producer Daniel Lanois who produced and co-produced various U2 albums like The Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby undoubtedly had something to do with it. Here’s the title track written by Neil Young who also provided harmony vocals. Young had first recorded the tune for his 1989 studio album Freedom. And, coming back to U2, Larry Mullen, Jr. played drums on most of the album’s songs including this one.

Given the significance of collaboration albums in Harris’ catalog, I’d like to at least acknowledge one: Trio II from February 1999, the second album she did together with Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt. All tracks had actually been recorded in 1994, but label disputes and conflicting schedules had prevented the release at the time. While I’ve featured it on the blog before, I just couldn’t resist including the ladies’ angelic rendition of After The Gold Rush, the title track of Neil Young’s third studio album from September 1970. Interestingly, while the remake did not chart when it was released as a single from Trio II, it won the 2000 Grammy for Best Country Collaboration with Vocals. The intensity of this version is just killing me. This is why I dig vocals!

In September 2003, Harris released Stumble into Grace, her second album of the current century. Like some of her previous records, it includes a significant number of her own compositions. She also co-wrote most of the remaining tracks. Here’s the opener Here I Am, one of her tunes.

I’d like to wrap up this playlist with a track from what is Harris’ most recent solo album, Hard Bargain, released in April 2011. Her two latest records are collaborations with Rodney Crowell from February 2013 and March 2015. There’s also the Complete Trio Collection, a compilation of the Trio I and Trio II collaborative albums with Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt, which came out in September 2016. Given the enormous role of Gram Parsons, it felt right to highlight opener The Road, a tune Harris penned about her musical mentor – the first to focus on his death since Boulder to Colorado, a song from Pieces of the Sky. It’s also noteworthy that Hard Bargain became Harris’ highest chart entry since the above Roses in the Snow from 1980, peaking at no. 3 on the Billboard Top Country Albums. It also hit no. 18 on the Billboard 200, her highest mainstream chart success since 1977’s Luxury Liner, a remarkable late-stage career success.

Emmylou Harris has sold 75 million records in the U.S. alone. She has won 14 Grammy awards out of 48 for which she had been nominated. She has also won numerous country, bluegrass and Americana awards, and was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in February 2008.

Sources: Wikipedia; YouTube

Rock The Farm Once Again Proves To Be Gift That Keeps On Giving

Sixth annual music tribute festival on Jersey show delivers day of great music for a great cause

While late September in New Jersey means fall is upon us and soon folks will start bitching about rain, wind and cold weather, I’ve been looking forward to this last weekend of the month all year. The reason is Rock the Farm, the annual music tribute festival and fundraiser in Seaside Heights, N.J., organized by the CFC Loud n Clear Foundation. As previously noted on these pages, this charitable organization provides support to families struggling with addiction at a particularly critical time when their loved ones come out of drug rehab and need to rebuild their lives while staying sober.

It’s a good thing if you like me have never been hooked on drugs, but let’s not kid ourselves: Even if we think we’re immune, there’s no doubt in my mind addiction can happen to anybody. And it can probably go faster than we want to admit. Therefore, I strongly feel we shouldn’t look down on folks who are in the throes of drugs. Instead, we should support them as best as we can. It’s safe to assume nobody wants to be a drug addict, if they could freely choose. And, yes, impacted people probably made some choices they wish they could take back. But we shouldn’t judge. Behind each case, there is a human being with a unique story.

In fact, just like last year, the event featured individuals who had the courage to come on stage and briefly share their stories with the audience. It’s safe to assume it takes guts to this. It’s also extremely powerful. Among these folks was an 18-year-old woman who said she became a drug addict at age 13. Thirteen years – that’s a good deal younger than my 17-year-old. Her life fell totally apart and she lost everything. This is truly heart-breaking stuff. Luckily, thanks to support from the CFC Foundation, this young woman was able to turn things around and now feels she’s stronger than ever. While it was obviously a happy outcome, I have to admit these stories get to me. I also love the message of hope and empowerment. With that being said, let’s get to some music. There was plenty, and once again, most of it was outstanding.

Rock the Farm 2019 Line-up

For readers who aren’t familiar with Rock the Farm, the concept of the 10-hour open air event is this: Imagine a music festival many folks wish would happen but can’t, since artists have passed away or no longer perform. As a music lover, I think it’s a fun idea. Yesterday’s line-up brought a nice mix of tributes playing different music styles, including folk, rock, pop and even hair metal. Following are some clips.

I’d like to kick things off with One Fine Tapestry, a tribute to Carole King, one of my favorite singer-songwriters. At the core of this act are Gerard Barros and Diane Barros, a New Jersey-based versatile husband and wife duo performing a variety of different shows. Yesterday, they were backed by a full band and in addition to King also played some tunes by Joni Mitchell and Carly Simon. For more information and their schedule of shows mostly in Jersey, you can check out their website. Here’s Sweet Seasons, a tune off King’s third solo album Music from December 1971, co-written by her and Toni Stern.

Coo Coo Cachoo, another Jersey-based act, are Thomas Johnston and Ed Jankiewicz, who have been singing Simon & Garfunkel songs since they met in high school some 47 years ago. This means they started about two years after Simon & Garfunkel had released their fifth and last studio album Bridge Over Troubled Water. I find that pretty amazing. In addition to performing as a duo, they each do solo projects. Johnston recently completed his third album of original singer-songwriter material. Jankiewicz has recorded one original album and plays in an eclectic array of music groups , from symphony to blue grass to jazz. More information is on the duo’s Facebook page. Here is their rendition of America. Written by Paul Simon, the song appeared on Simon & Garfunkel’s fourth studio record Bookends released in April 1968. I’ve always liked this tune!

Following are a few tribute acts I covered before, but they’re just too good to skip. First up: Decade, a great act revolving around Neil Young tribute artist John Hathaway, who is also from New Jersey and performs with different line-ups of great backing musicians. Frequent members include guitarist Gordon Bunker Strout, pedal steel player Joseph Napolitano, bassist John Dickson and keyboarder Steve Cunniff. Sometimes, Hathaway’s band also features a female backing vocalist as was the case yesterday with Pam McCoy. For more information and upcoming gigs, visit Decade’s Facebook page. Here’s Cinnamon Girl, a tune from Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, which Young released as his second solo album in May 1969.

The Glimmer Twins, a Rolling Stones tribute from Philly, are another excellent band I previously featured. Adopting the nickname of the songwriting partnership of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, this bandis led by Keith Call (vocals, harp) and Bernie Bollendorf (guitars, vocals), who bring to life the sound and looks of Jagger and Richards in the ’70s. While the band’s remaining musicians don’t resemble the other members of The Rolling Stones, they sound fantastic:  Michael Rubino (guitars), Bobby Corea (drums), Rob Ekstedt (Bass), Rocco Notte  (keyboards), Valorie Steel (vocals) and Bobby Michaels (saxophone, flute, organ). For more information, check out their website. Here’s Can You Hear Me Knocking, one of my favorite tunes from the Sticky Fingers album that appeared in April 1971. Check out the nice sax work by Michaels!

Yet another outstanding band I’ve covered before is TUSK, a tribute to Fleetwood Mac, which mirrors the Rumours lineup. Their members include Kathy Phillips (as Stevie Nicks, vocals), Kim Williams (as Christine McVie, keyboards & vocals), Scott McDonald (as Lindsey Buckingham, guitar & vocals), Tom Nelson (as Mick Fleetwood, drums) and Randy Artiglere (as John McVie, bass). While TUSK are from Jersey, they tour nationally. Check the band’s website for more information including their schedule. If you are into Rumours and other albums the band recorded with that line-up, this is definitely a tribute act I can recommend. Here’s the McVie tune You Make Loving Fun from Rumours, the Mac’s 11th studio album released in February 1977.

The last band I’d like to call out is Simply Queen, a tribute to – yes, you guessed it – Queen. This Canadian band, which has been around for 15 years, features Rick Rock (as Freddie Mercury), Bob Wegner (as Brian May), Phil Charrette (as Roger Taylor) and Mitch Taylor (as John Deacon). Despite some technical issues they seemed to have, especially in the beginning, Simply Queen put on a great show. It was quite obvious that Rock and Wegner have closely studied Mercury and May, respectively, beyond the music to mimic their onstage personas. So similar to the Glimmer Twins and also TUSK, Simply Queen is an audio-visual experience. While they mostly perform in Canada, they venture out to the U.S. fairly frequently. For more information and their schedule, visit their website. Here’s a nice rocker called It’s Late. Written by Brian May, the song is from News of the World, Queen’s sixth studio album released in October 1977. 

With some not so great things that have happened on the family front over the past two weeks, Rock the Farm could not have come at a better time for me. Oftentimes, I feel music is the best therapy and distraction when the shit hits the fan. I was a happy camper. Can you tell from the selfie?

Selfie

This was the 6th annual Rock the Farm festival and my third time there in a row. I have every intention to return next next year. More information about this great event is available here.

Sources: Wikipedia, Rock the Farm website, One Fine Tapestry website, Coo Coo Cachoo Facebook page, Decade Facebook page, Glimmer Twins website, TUSK website, Simply Queen website, YouTube