by Glen Herbert
(For KDHX radio) There’s a scene in the first season of Nashville where Rayna James approaches a young rock producer to make her next album. She’s only written one song toward the project, but nevertheless, she’s more interested in her sound. She gets drunk, cuts a track at the hipster’s studio, and presents it to the CEO of her record label, who isn’t thrilled. Undaunted, she says, “this is my sound.” It’s a moment where she appears—and I realize that it’s written to be this way—defiant, confident, taking charge of her career by thumbing her nose at the bean counters.
Fine. But if I were the CEO I would have responded, “That’s your sound? Okay, but where are your songs?” She knows as well as he does that they haven’t been written yet. To be so fixated on sound, in the absence of content, seems a bit like an artist saying, “well, I don’t know what I’m going to paint, but it’s going to be red.”
Still, watching that scene between Rayna James and the producer, it’s easy to wonder if there was a similar interaction between Emmylou Harris and Daniel Lanois just prior to the creation of the Wrecking Ball album. I don’t suppose Lanois was resistant, but I think Harris’ desire was probably the same: to find a new sound. And she did. And, even now, she still hasn’t recovered from it.
The irony is that, in interview, Harris has said that her goal is to find her way back to the living room, that is, to what music was like before she was so much a part of the industry of music; a time when music was sitting around with friends, singing songs; a time when, I think we can infer, it was less about sound, or the electronic patina of a recording, than it was the content of the songs themselves. It wasn’t about sound, but heartache, loss, joy, friendship.
Indeed, Harris’ best work is when she is closest to that ideal, in recordings where she doesn’t rely only on the “sound”—using the term as Rayna James does—but trusts the content to get the message across. Listen, for example, to how she uses her voice on “Get Up John” or “Smoke Along the Track” from At the Ryman. It’s an understatement to say that she has a brilliant voice, and on those recordings she uses it to just to sing the songs, not to sell them or sell herself. There are none of the swallowed syllables, excessive vibrato, or breathed tones that characterize her later work. It’s not fair to compare her voice now to what it was thirty years ago, I realize, but again, I don’t think it’s about her voice—her voice has been remarkably consistent through the years—it’s rather about the choices she makes about how to apply it to a song. “Boulder to Birmingham,” “I’ll Go Stepping Too” everything on Roses in the Snow or Evangeline or Last Date—yes these recordings are from a long time ago, but they are also from a time when she clearly trusted the content, and it showed. Those songs worked because she filled them with air, and then she let them go.
She can still do that, and we see glimpses of it from time to time. In 2002 she played Merlefest, as did all of the other members of the Nash Ramblers (though with other acts) the band she had with her for At the Ryman. Wrecking Ball had been out for seven years at that point, Red Dirt Girl for two, but it was the pre-Lanois voice and approach that flowed from the stage. She was having a blast, joking with Sam Bush about baseball, and she just sang the songs. It was, hands-down, the best performance I’ve ever seen from her.
The teaser and title track for this latest release—The Travelling Kind, a second album of duets with Rodney Crowel—suggested that it might be closer to that than she’s been in a long time. The track that ends the collection, “Le Danse de la Joie” is a broader arrangement, but it succeeds in the same way. Still, those two songs aren’t representative of the album as a whole. More typically, Harris forces the lyric, trying to put emotion into it rather than simply bringing forward the emotion that is already there. These songs are all very well written, after all, and expertly crafted and arranged. All she has to do is sing them, to trust them, and let the content do it’s work. As a demonstration, compare the entry of “Higher Mountains” or “Her Hair Was Red” on this recording with that of “Icy Blue Heart” from Bluebird. There, she stepped back; here, she steps forward, and in the process loses something. She wants these songs to sound mournful, and does it by sounding mournfully, which just becomes distracting. The breathed syllables on “No Memories Hanging Around” break the phrases where they shouldn’t be broken. She’s thinking too much about sound, not enough about the narrative.
The best moments on this recording, and there are more than a few of them, are when Crowell takes the lead vocal and Harris the harmony. She has always been an electrifying harmony singer, and it’s her presence on the two Trio albums, with Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt, that take the material from good to great. Here, “If You Lived Here You’d Be Home Now” is a standout for exactly that reason—she supports Crowell, who happily lets the song speak for itself, the harmony beautifully supporting his ability to do so.
In any event, I’ve been hoping that Harris would find her way back the living room, and had hoped that this album might be it. Instead, it’s another indication that she could if she wanted to, but for whatever reason is choosing not to.