(100) Days of Soundtrack: #29 – Emmylou Harris – Wrecking Ball
It takes a lot for me to want to hear a “country” album. I find the genre to often be needlessly political in the uncomfortable, jingoistic way as opposed to the revolutionary truth-to-power one. I find little to praise in being a down home boy ’round here, and less in being a redneck woman (or worse, a god fearin’ woman gettin’ the blues). If I got over the topics, there would still be the sound… the forced accents, the two-step of classic country, the generic pop flavor of modern country. It’s a genre that welcomes anyone so long as they like blue jeans, military force, and being the whitest. American Idol regularly would give the country singer a contract regardless of placement or talent. That’s a decent summation of my feelings in and of itself. Yet I knew that I would need to go dig into some country to make this experiment fair, and so I did what any sane human would do: I chose to pull up some Emmylou Harris, specifically her groundbreaking 1995 effort, Wrecking Ball
The thing about Emmylou Harris that makes her so beautiful to me is her voice. There’s no doubt that she’s a country singer, as her vibrato and twang are evident, but she also has such a perfectly imperfect delivery. She sings in moans and gasps. She sings ragged and crying. She sings sweet despair. When she’s in full voice, she resonates. When she’s reaching past her limits, her falsetto is muted and gauzy. When she is right in the middle, though, when her voice is transitioning and it catches as though in a sob… that is what kills me. I could listen to that all day. Or at least, for twelve tracks.
It is interesting how every one of these songs sound like they were tailor made for Emmylou, despite many authors being involved. The most obvious is the title track “Wrecking Ball,” which is perfectly Emmylou until you learn it’s written by Neil Young, and all of a sudden you can’t help but hear his version, as it must be. Steve Earle’s folk storytelling comes through on “Goodbye,” and “Every Grain of Sand” isn’t surprising when you learn it’s Dylan. Among the most interesting interpretations is Jimi Hendrix’s “May This Be Love.” Daniel Lanois is faithful to Jimi in his guitar tone, and yet that tone is the only hint for the unfamiliar that this might be a Hendrix track. The vocals are simple and sweet and minimal, though… once again, this feels like an Emmylou Harris song, all told.
Of course, it’s not so simple, because Emmylou Harris IS a country singer, and these are tracks which go well beyond the normal bounds of country. Having Daniel Lanois on board, iconic producer and well known guitar tweaker that he is, The Lanois penned tracks here are stunning, and Emmylou inhabits the tracks like she was born for them. His fingerprints are all over all of these songs. When “Where Will I Be” opens the album, it is an immediate lure not only for Harris’ voice, but for the moody, shimmering, spaciness of of the guitars over which she sings. His “Blackhawk” feels more fitted to her genre, and yet his perspective takes it a bit outside the realm of normal country. Elsewhere, there is the Hendrix interpretation that turns the track on its head, and as the album ends, the drums of “Waltz Across Texas Tonight” make the song feel far more urgent and definite than the average waltz. There are musical choices which flesh these songs out into real pieces of art, and not just simple interpretations. If Emmylou’s voice is inimitable, Lanois’ production is no less vital to the album’s overall effect.
Let’s get back to talking about that title track, though. “Wrecking Ball” is an absolute killer. It shuffles in a tired, almost drugged reverie. Harris almost disappears in the chorus, the ghost of a voice haunting the notes she left behind. There’s an optimism and beauty here, though there’s no reason for there to be. The “pretty and white” outfit contrasts a soundscape that suggests a vast expanse, a twilight wasteland. The wrecking ball imagery contrasts the purity of that outfit. If we think of country music as a dialog written by hardscrabble rural America, it could be the ultimate country song, the ultimate forcing a smile for the sake of appearances even though everything’s falling apart, and yet it’s not overt, it’s not the stereotypical dead-dog, cheatin’-woman, busted-truck country that people have been jabbing at for years. What it is is 4:49 of beauty and sorrow and chills. There is the life of a woman spilled on this track, and it’s simply incomparable, to me.
That’s the thing I found most interesting about Wrecking Ball as an album. It’s definitely a country album, but it rarely feels country in the way we think of it. “Deeper Well” is about the most classically country thing here. I am biased, of course, but I think the album ends up being all the stronger for it. Country can be overly traditional and stuck in the past. Wrecking Ball, even as its selections are mined from the past, and has roots in the musical traditions of Americana, is still fresh and forward thinking. If only we could get the modern country sorts to consider a similar path.
Oh, and by the way, I kept listening through the second disc worth of music here. If you check the album out yourself, it can’t hurt to grab both discs. Not only are they separate, so you get to listen to the album itself as Harris intended, but the additional songs are, if not essential, still solid. Plus you get a brisk, hoedown-style version of “Deeper Well” and an acoustic rendition of that lovely guitar orgasm that was “May This Be Love.” From someone who is pretty adamantly anti-bonus-material, this is stuff worth checking out.
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