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

They All Went Down To Yasgur’s Farm, And Everywhere There Was Song And Celebration

…By the time we got to Woodstock/We were half a million strong/And everywhere was a song and a celebration/And I dreamed I saw the bomber death planes/Riding shotgun in the sky/Turning into butterflies/Above our nation… (excerpt from Joni Mitchell tune Woodstock)

Next week is the 50th anniversary of Woodstock, which took place from August 15-18, 1969. Much has been written about this festival, which officially was titled the Woodstock Music & Art Fair. The initiators Michael LangArtie KornfeldJoel Rosenman and John P. Roberts. The selection of the venue, which ended up being Max Yasgur’s 600-acre dairy farm in Bethel, N.Y. The acts who were not invited or and those who were but chose to decline or didn’t make it there. The artists who performed at the event. The overcrowding with an audience exceeding 400,000 people, more than twice the 200,000 that had been expected, based on advance sales of 186,000 tickets. The mud bath conditions resulting from bad weather.

Woodstock Poster

As a huge fan of music from that era, it felt natural to commemorate this extraordinary moment in 20th Century entertainment history. At the same time, I did not want to create yet another write-up that recaps the history. Instead, this post focuses on what my blog is supposed to be all about: Music I love and therefore like to celebrate. Following are some performance highlights from Woodstock. Since I didn’t have strong feelings about a particular order, I decided to go chronologically.

Let’s kick it off with Richie Havens, the opening act on the first day, Friday, August 15, in the late afternoon, and his riveting performance of Freedom. It was an improvised encore based on the traditional spiritual Motherless Child. “When you hear me play that long intro, it’s me stalling. I was thinking, ‘What the hell am I going to sing?'” he later explained, according to Songfacts. “I think the word ‘freedom’ came out of my mouth because I saw it in front of me. I saw the freedom that we were looking for. And every person was sharing it, and so that word came out.” Sounds like a cool story.

Sweet Sir Galahad is a tune by Joan Baez. Like in other cases at Woodstock, her performance predated the actual recording and release of the song, which first appeared on her 1970 studio album One Day At A Time. BTW, when Baez played it at the festival, it was already past 1:00 am on Saturday, August 16. In order to squeeze the 32 acts into the three days, many artists ended up performing after midnight. As you might imagine, some weren’t exactly happy about it.

Undoubtedly, one of Woodstock’s highlights I’ve seen is Soul Sacrifice by Santana. The band played on Saturday afternoon. Credited to Carlos Santana (guitar), Gregg Rolie (keyboards), David Brown (bass) and Marcus Malone (congas), Soul Sacrifice was included on the band’s eponymous studio debut album, released two weeks after their iconic appearance at the festival. I’ve watched this clip many times, and it continues to give me goosebumps. These guys were lightening up the stage. Live music doesn’t get much better than that. This appearance in and of itself already would have justified Santana’s place in music history. Of course, there was much more to come.

Moving on to Saturday evening brings us to blues rockers Canned Heat and their great tune On The Road Again. Co-credited to the band’s vocalist Alan Wilson, who also played harmonica and guitar, and blues artist Floyd Jones, the track was adapted from earlier blues songs. It first appeared on Canned Heat’s second studio album Boogie With Canned Heat released in January 1968. At Woodstock, it was the band’s closer of their set – what a way to wrap things up!

Next up: Born On The Bayou, one of the killer tunes by Creedence Clearwater Revival. Written by John Fogerty, the song was included on CCR’s sophomore album Bayou Country from January 1969. The band was among the acts performing in the wee wee hours of Sunday morning, August 17. I recall reading that Fogerty wasn’t happy with that time slot, saying the audience was half asleep. That’s why he refused CCR’s inclusion in the 1970 Woodstock documentary, something this band mates felt was a mistake, but John was the undisputed boss. However, footage of CCR is featured in an expanded 40th anniversary edition of the film, which came out in June 2009.

Another highlight of the early hours of Sunday was Janis Joplin with The Kozmic Blues Band. Here’s Try (Just A Little Bit Harder), the opener of Joplin’s third studio album I Got Dem Ol’ Kozmic Blues Again Mama! from September 1969. The song was co-written by Jerry Ragovoy and Chip Taylor. I don’t feel there was any way Joplin could have tried any harder to sing that song than she did. Similar to Santana, the energy of her performance was through the roof. And all of this after 2:00 am in the morning – whatever substance she was on, it apparently worked!

If I see this correctly (based on Wikipedia), the set with the most songs at Woodstock  belonged to The Who with 22 tracks. They kicked their gig off at 5:00 am on Sunday. Again, what a crazy thought to play at that time! Still, the kids certainly were alright. Here’s We’re Not Gonna Take It/See Me, Feel Me, the final track from Tommy, the band’s fourth studio album that appeared in May 1969. Like most tunes on the record, it was written by Pete Townshend.

Apart from Jimi Hendrix’s rendition of The Star-Spangled Banner, perhaps the most iconic performance at Woodstock was With A Little Help From My Friends by Joe Cocker, the first act who officially opened the festival’s final day on Sunday afternoon. To me, Cocker’s version of The Beatles’ tune is the best rock cover I know. He truly made it his own. In fact, The Beatles were so impressed with it that they allowed him to cover more of their songs like She Came Into The Bathroom Window. With A Little Help From My Friends was the title track of Cocker’s debut album from May 1969. What an amazing performance!

On to 3:00 am on Monday, August 18 and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. For the most part, including set opener Suite: Judy Blue Eyes, it was actually David Crosby, Stephen Stills and Graham Nash only. Neil Young skipped most of the acoustic songs but joined the band during the electric set. Neil being Neil, he also refused to be filmed, feeling it was distracting to both the performers and the audience. Written by Stills, Suite: Judy Blue Eyes was the opening track of CSN’s debut album from May 1969.

A post about Woodstock’s musical highlights wouldn’t be complete without the closing act: Jimi Hendrix. Playing on Monday from 9:00 to 11:00 am, it looks like he had the longest set. Here is his unforgettable rendition of the aforementioned The Star-Spangled Banner. Hendrix effectively used heavy guitar distortion, feedback and sustain to imitate the sounds from rockets and bombs. He truly gave it all he got and collapsed from exhaustion while leaving the stage after his encore Hey Joe.

Woodstock’s original co-creator Michael Lang also helped organize a planned 50th anniversary festival. However, after a series of production issues, venue relocations and artist cancellations, it was canceled on July 31, 2018. A second Woodstock anniversary festival was planned at Bethel Woods Center for the Arts, but in February, the Center announced that instead it will focus on “A Season of Song & Celebration” for the entire summer. The anniversary dates coincide with concerts from Ringo Starr and His All Starr Band (Aug 16), Santana with The Doobie Brothers (Aug 17) and John Fogerty with Tedeshi Trucks Band & Grace Potter (Aug 18).

I’ll leave you with a little fun fact: Tickets for Santana with The Doobies start at about $128.00 (including fees). By today’s standards, sadly, this is fairly normal. But, to be clear, these tickets are the cheapest and will only get you the lawn, the area farthest away from the stage. By comparison, tickets for the entire Woodstock festival in 1969, which as noted above included 32 acts, sold for $18.00 in advance and $24.00 at the gate. That’s the equivalent of approximately $123.00 and $164.00 today. Once again, we see the times they are a changin!

Sources: Wikipedia, Songfacts, Syracuse.com, Bethel Woods Center for the Arts website, YouTube

Aw, The ’80s (Part 2: 1985-1989)

A two-part feature looking back at music of the decade

Here is the second and final installment of my feature looking back at music and some related events in the ’80s. This part is focused on the second half of the decade. As noted in part 1, it isn’t meant to be a comprehensive review but instead a selection of things I find noteworthy.

1985

To me the key music event during this year and perhaps the entire decade was Live Aid. I was watching it on TV from Germany while simultaneously taping it on music cassette from the radio. Organized by Bob Geldorf and Midge Ure as a fundraiser to fight starvation in Ethiopia, Africa, the benefit concert was conducted on July 13 simultaneously in the U.K. at London’s Wembley Stadium and the U.S. at John F. Kennedy Stadium in Philadelphia. Among others, it featured Status Quo, Queen, U2, David Bowie, The Who and Paul McCartney at Wembley, while some of the performers in Philly included Joan Baez, Madonna, Tom Petty, Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger, Tina Turner and, in a less-than-stellar appearance, a reunited Led Zeppelin featuring Phil Collins on drums. The concerts were watched by an estimated global TV audience of 1.9 billion across 150 countries and raised approximately 150 million British pounds.

Live Aid Wembley
The Live Aid concert at London’s Wembley Stadium was attended by 72,000 people

Other events that year included the official launch of VH-1 on cable TV in the U.S. (Jan 1); recording of the charity single for Africa We Are The World (Jan 28), co-written by Michael Jackson and Lionel Ritchie and performed by USA For Africa, who apart from Jackson and Ritchie featured Ray Charles, Billy Joel, Cindy Lauper, Paul Simon, Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Wonder and numerous other top artists; release of Dire Straits’ fifth studio album Brothers In Arms, their best-selling record that among others became known for its exceptional sound quality due to its all-digital recording (May 13); Michael Jackson’s purchase of the publishing rights for most of The Beatles’ catalog for $47 million, out-bidding former artistic collaborator McCartney whose success in music publishing had inspired Jackson to increase his activities in the business (Sep 6); and Roger Waters’ announced intention to leave Pink Floyd, which marked the start of a two-year legal battle over the rights to the band’s name and assets.

The biggest hit singles of 1985 were Shout (Tears For Fears), We Are The World (USA For Africa), Take On Me (a-ha), I Want To Know What Love Is (Foreigner) and Material Girl (Madonna). Following is Money For Nothing, the second single from Dire Straits’ Brothers In Arms album, which they performed at Live Aid. Like on the studio recording, it featured Sting on backing vocals.

1986

On Jan 30, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame held its first induction ceremony. The first batch of inductees included Chuck Berry, James Brown, Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, Fats Domino, The Everly Brothers, Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard and Elvis Presley. While over the years since, there has been much debate over who should be in the Rock Hall, the selection process, the award categories, etc., I think there is no doubt that the above artists all well-deserving inductees.

Rock Roll Hall of Fame 1986 Inductees
Rock & Roll Hall of Fame 1986 inductees (left to right): upper row: Chuck Berry, James Brown, Ray Charles, Sam Cooke and Fats Domino; lower row: The Everly Brothers, Buddy Hollie, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard and Elvis Presley

Other events: Bob Geldorf’s knighthood award to recognize his work for Live Aid and other charity concerts for Africa (Jun 10); release of Madonna’s True Blue album, the best-selling record of year (Jun 30); and disbanding of The Clash, Electric Light Orchestra (revived by Jeff Lynne in 2000) and Men At Work.

The top-performing hit singles included Rock Me Amadeus (Falco) – the first German-language song to top the U.S. Billboard Hot 100Papa Don’t Preach (Madonna), The Final Countdown (Europe), Take My Breath Away (Berlin) and West End Girls (Pet Shop Boys). The 1986 tune I’d like to highlight is Sledgehammer by Peter Gabriel, which was first released as a single in April. It also appeared on his fifth studio album So that came out the following month. Here’s the song’s official video, which won multiple accolades in 1987, including a record nine awards at the MTV Music Video Music Awards and “Best British Video” at the Brit Awards. It’s definitely one of the most memorable music videos of the decade.

1987

Some of the events in music during that year included the induction of Aretha Franklin as the first woman into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (Jan 3); release of U2’s fifth studio album The Joshua Tree (Mar 9), which topped the charts in 20-plus countries and became one of the world’s most commercially successful records, selling more than 25 million copies; Whitney Houston’s second studio album Whitney, the first record by a female artist to debut at no. 1 on the Billboard 200 (Jun 27); launch of MTV Europe (Aug 1); and release of A Momentary Lapse Of Reason, Pink Floyd’s first studio album after the departure of and legal battle with Roger Waters (Sep 7). Waters finally wrapped up his legal separation from the band later that year.

The highest-charting hit singles were La Bamba (Los Lobos), Never Gonna Give You Up (Rick Astley); I Wanna Dance With Somebody Who Loves Me (Whitney Houston), It’s A Sin (Pet Shop Boys) and Who’s That Girl (Madonna) – I remember each of these songs like it was yesterday! Here’s Where The Streets Have No Name from my favorite U2 album The Joshua Tree. Credited to the band (music) and Bono (lyrics), the tune was released as the album’s third single in August 1987, five months after the record’s appearance.

1988

Some of the music events that year included the induction of The Beach Boys, The Beatles, The Drifters, Bob Dylan and The Supremes into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (Jan 20); near-death experience for Alice Cooper on stage after one of the props, the Gallows, malfunctioned – yikes! (Apr 7); sale of legendary soul label Motown Records to MCA and financial firm Boston Ventures for $61 million (Jun 27); John Fogerty’s win of what sounds like a frivolous self-plagiarism lawsuit Fantasy Records had brought against him, claiming his 1985 comeback tune The Old Man Down The Road was too similar to Run Through The Jungle, which he had recorded with Creedence Clearwater Revival in 1970 (Nov 7); and final concert by Roy Orbison in Akron, Ohio (Dec 4) prior to his death from a heart attack only two days thereafter.

Leading hit singles: A Groovy Kind Of Love (Phil Collins), Don’t Worry Be Happy (Bobby McFerrin), Always On My Mind (Pet Shop Boys),  Heaven Is A Place On Earth (Belinda Carlisle) and Take Me To Your Heart (Rick Astley). One 1988 song I like in particular is Under The Milky Way Tonight by Australian outfit The Church. Co-written by Steve Kilbey and Karin Jansson, it became the lead single to their excellent fifth studio album Starfish. Both were released in February that year. Here’s a clip.

1989

I can’t believe I made it to the last year of the decade! Some of the events I’d like to highlight are criticism of Madonna by religious groups worldwide over alleged blasphemous use of Christian imagery in her music video for Like A Prayer (Feb 23), which had premiered on MTV the day before; release of Bonnie Raitt’s 10th studio album Nick Of Time, one of my favorite records from her (Mar 21); release of Tom Petty’s excellent debut solo album Full Moon Fever (Apr 24); Ringo Starr’s formation of his All-Starr Band (Jul 23); opening of The Rolling Stones’ North American tour in Philadelphia to support their comeback album Steel Wheels (Aug 31), two days after the album had dropped; and release of Neil Young’s 17th studio album Freedom (Oct 2), best known for the epic Rockin’ In The Free World.

Key hit singles were Like A Prayer (Madonna), Eternal Flame (The Bangles), Another Day In Paradise (Phil Collins), The Look (Roxette) and Love Shack (The B-52s). The final ’80s tune I’d like to call out via clip is Down To London by Joe Jackson, an artist I’ve listened to for many years. He recorded the song for his 10th studio release Blaze Of Glory, which appeared in April 1989.

Sources: Wikipedia, YouTube