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

The Hardware: Fender Telecaster

World’s first commercially successful solid-body electric guitar continues to be popular to this day, more than 65 years after its introduction

Similar to the Fender Stratocaster and the Gibson Les Paul, which I covered in previous posts here and here, I could have called the Fender Telecaster the quintessential electric guitar. After all, that model predated the Stratocaster and the Les Paul by three years and one year, respectively. And while Paul Bigsby built the first solid-body for country and western artist Merle Travis in 1948, it was the Telecaster that became the first such electric guitar that was manufactured on a substantial scale.

But the truth is “quintessential” is largely in the eye of the beholder. I always loved the seductive shape of the Stratocaster. I also thought Mark Knopfler created such a cool signature sound with it on Sultans of Swing, Once Upon a Time In the West and other early Dire Straits classics. Ultimately, that’s why I feel the Strat is THE electric guitar and wrote about it first. On to the Telecaster.

The Telecaster was developed by inventor Leo Fender, the founder of the Fender Electric Instrument Company. He built the first prototype in the fall of 1949 and introduced it to the market in 1950 as the Fender Esquire, a solid-body with one single-coil pickup. But the Esquire was hampered by quality issues, especially around the guitar neck that easily bent, so it was only produced in limited numbers.

Fender Esquire 1951
Fender Esquire 1951

Fender addressed the lacking neck stability with the placement of a tross rod. He also added a second single-coil pickup to the guitar and renamed it the Fender Broadcaster. That name was very similar to Broadkaster drum sets made by Gretsch, so needed it be changed. The Broadcaster became the Telecaster in 1951, and the guitar has been sold under that brand name ever since.

The Telecaster featured several innovations and used production techniques that made manufacturing and repairing the guitar more cost-effective compared to models from Gibson and other manufacturers. Rather than constructing the Telecaster individually, Fender introduced the production of components that could easily be put together into the finished product on an assembly line.

Fender Telecaster 1951
1951 Fender Telecaster

Unlike the traditional glued in neck, the Telecaster had a “bolt-on” neck. Not only did this make production easier, but it also allowed for faster repair or replacement of the neck. Additionally, the neck on the classic Telecaster was made from a single piece of maple without a separate fingerboard.

Moreover, the bodies of the Telecaster were built with solid pieces of wood instead of being hand-carved individually. The Telecaster also featured easily accessible electronics. This was made possible through a removable control plate. In contrast, the electronics of the then-predominant hollow-body electric guitars could only be accessed through the soundholes.

Fender Telecaster Electronics Control Plate
Telecaster control plate for electonics

Unlike the Stratocaster, which got a lukewarm initial reception from many guitarists, the Telecaster was an immediate hit. This can be explained by the guitar’s distinct properties, which according to Reverb include: “A bridge pickup tone like to no other. The definition of twang when clean. The definition of rock when dirty; Liberating simplicity. Two pickups, two knobs, six strings, no frills. It forces you to be a better player; Surprising versatility. Across three pickup positions, different tone knob positions and varying levels of gain, the Tele is capable of an unexpected number of voices.”

I think it’s mainly the guitar’s versatility, which has made the Telecaster a staple in country, electric blues, rock & roll and other music genres. Like in the case of the Stratocaster and the Les Paul, several customized versions of the Telecaster have appeared over the decades. These variants feature different pickup configurations like a humbucker in the neck position, dual humbuckers and three single-coil pickups. There is also a semi-hollow version called the Telecaster Thinline.

Now comes the part of this type of gear-focused post that excites me the most – a list of musicians who have championed the equipment.

James Burton

American guitarist James Burton, who has performed with Ricky Nelson, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Glen Campbell, Roy Orbison and many others, has played a Telecaster since age 13 and is considered to be the most visible Tele player in the late ’50s. Here’s a great clip of Burton performing Johnny B. Goode and Blue Suede Shoes live with Presley, playing his Paisley Red Tele.

Albert Lee

Also known as Mr. Telecaster, English guitarist Albert Lee has played a Telecaster since 1963. Here is a cool live clip from the early ’70s of Lee performing Country Boy with British country rock band Heads Hands & Feet – holy moly!

Albert Collins

American electric blues guitarist Albert Collins was called The Master of the Telecaster. The Fender Custom Shop offers an Albert Collins Signature Telecaster, which is based on his 1966 model featuring a humbucker pickup in the neck position. Here is a fantastic clip of Collins playoing Iceman, the title song of his tenth and final studio album released in March 1991, two and a half years prior to his untimely death from lung cancer in November 1993 at age 61.

Keith Richards

Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards has used a variety of Telecasters throughout his long career. The most famous one is a ’53 Tele called Micawber. According to the Fender website, Richards got the Micawber from Eric Clapton as a present for his 27th birthday in 1970. At the time, the Stones were gearing up for Exile On Main Street. Shortly after the band’s ’72 tour, Richards replaced the single-coil pickup in the neck position with a ’50s Gibson PAF humbucker for extra bite. Here’s a clip of Richards in action with his Micawber, together with the Stones: Brown Sugar, from the 2016 concert in Havana, Cuba.

Muddy Waters

Blues guitar legend Muddy Waters played a red ’57 Telecaster. Until 2010, Fender offered a replica as part of its signature series, the Muddy Waters Telecaster. Here is a great clip of the maestro and his red Telecaster, performing I’m A King Bee, captured during ChicagoFest in 1981.

Bruce Springsteen

Of course, this short list of Telecaster champions would be incomplete without The Boss. Bruce Springsteen’s iconic guitar, which is pictured on the cover of the Born To Run album from 1975, is not a pure breed Telecaster. As Bobby Owsinski explains on his Music Production Blog, it’s actually a hybrid from at least two other guitars: a ’50s Telecaster body with what looks like a ’57 Esquire neck, which Springsteen purchased at a guitar shop in Neptune, N.J.

Before selling it to The Boss, store owner Phil Petillo removed the two additional pickups that had been added to return the guitar to its original Telecaster configuration. Over the years, Petillo made significant additional modifications requested by Springsteen, including triangular Precision Frets, a six saddle titanium bridge, as well as custom hot-wound waterproofed pickups and electronics, so the guitar could better withstand Springsteen’s marathon shows. In 2005, he retired his beloved instrument from live shows and has since played clones of it during tours. Springsteen continues to use the original for studio recordings. Here’s a clip of the mighty Born To Run, which is from a 1978 show and presumably features Springsteen’s original Telecaster hybrid. Man, watching this footage makes me want to see The Boss again!

Sources: Wikipedia; “Telecaster Buying Guide,” The Hub, March 2017; “Statocaster vs. Telecaster: The Differences That Matter,” Reverb, Nov 2016; “Interesting Mods: Keith Richards’ ‘Micawber’,” Fender website; “The Story Behind Bruce Springsteen’s Iconic Hybrid Telecaster,” Bobby Osinski, Music Production Blog; YouTube