Already celebrated as a discoverer and interpreter of other artists’ songs, 12-time Grammy Award winner Emmylou Harris has, in the last decade, gained admiration as much for her eloquently straightforward songwriting as for her incomparably expressive singing. On Hard Bargain, her third Nonesuch disc, she offers 11 original songs—three of them co-written with Grammy– and Oscar–winning composer Will Jennings—that touch on the autobiographical while reaching for the universal. She recalls the storied time she spent with her mentor Gram Parsons (“The Road”) and composes a sweet remembrance of the late singer-songwriter Kate McGarrigle (“Darlin’ Kate”) and the time they spent together, right up to the end. Harris locates poignancy and fresh meaning in events both historical and personal. On “My Name Is Emmett Till” she recounts a violent, headline-making story from the civil rights era in a heartbreakingly plain-spoken narrative, told from the murdered victim’s perspective; on “Goodnight Old World,” she fashions a bittersweet lullaby to her newly born grandchild, contrasting a grown-up’s world-weariness with a baby’s wide-eyed wonder. “Big Black Dog,” with its loping canine-like rhythms, is also a true tale, about a black lab mix named Bella. Harris, who runs a dog shelter called Bonaparte’s Retreat on her property, rescued Bella from the Nashville Metro pound and provided an especially happy ending to her story: “She goes on the tour bus with me now, along with another one of my rescues. I think of all the years on the road I wasted without a dog. They make it so much more pleasant. I’m making up for lost time now, that’s for sure.”
Few in pop or country music have achieved such honesty or revealed such maturity in their writing. Forty years into her career, Harris shares the hard-earned wisdom that—hopefully if not inevitably—comes with getting older, though she’s never stopped looking ahead. The candor of Harris’s words is matched by a simple, elegantly rendered production from Jay Joyce (Patty Griffin, Jack Ingram, Cage the Elephant), with whom she’d previously recorded a theme for the romantic drama, Nights in Rodanthe. While Harris’s acclaimed 2008 All I Intended to Be was recorded intermittently over a span of three years and featured an all-star cast of musician friends, including Dolly Parton, Vince Gill, and the McGarrigles, Hard Bargain was cut in a mere four weeks last summer at a Nashville studio, with only Harris, Joyce, and multiinstrumentalist Giles Reaves. Joyce gets big results from this strikingly small combo: Harris played acoustic guitars and overdubbed all the harmonies; Joyce layered shimmering electric guitar parts; Reaves—employing piano, pump organ, and synths as well as playing percussion—conjured gorgeous atmospherics, often giving these tracks, as Harris puts it, “a floaty, dreamy quality.”
“It’s such a beautifully realized sound,” says Harris. “We didn’t have the need for anyone else given how versatile Giles and Jay are. We became our own little family in the studio. We cut very simply, with just maybe a click and whatever they wanted to play and me on an acoustic guitar, going for that vocal and that feel, right to the heart of the matter. After we got a track, there were all those lovely brush strokes they were able to add to it later on. I particularly love the guitar part Jay put on ‘My Name Is Emmett Till.’ It’s a simple part but it just breaks my heart whenever I hear it. It’s like a cry from heaven or something. Jay works really fast but he puts so much thought into what he does. I’ve been very lucky to work with so many great producers over the years and now I guess it was time to increase the stable.”
On “The Road,” with its layers of reverb-doused electric guitars and harmony-packed chorus, Harris addresses, more forthrightly than she’s ever done in song, the short, life-altering period when she worked with country-rock pioneer Parsons. She and Joyce agreed this rousing number should open the disc, and its theme of coming to terms with the past sets the tone for much of what follows. Explains Harris, “I think you get to a certain point in your life where you do gaze back over the years and it’s sort of a celebration or a thank-you for the fact that you cross paths with people who change you forever. Certainly Gram did that; I did come down walking in his shoes and trying to carry on for him. So I really just told that story the way I see it in my mind, the brief time we had and how I couldn’t imagine that Gram wouldn’t be around forever. Life goes on and unfolds before you, but those people and those events that change you forever are always with you. It was an important event that determined the trajectory of my life and, more than anything, of my work.”
Throughout the disc, Harris contrasts the comforts of long-time companionship with the rigors, and just maybe the rewards, of a more solitary life. The title of “The Ship on His Arm” was borrowed from a Terry Allen drawing that Guy Clark’s wife had given Harris a copy of, and the lyrics were inspired by the story of Harris’s own parents, whose marriage was tested when her Marine father went missing in action during the Korean War: “I made up a story about a young couple who were separated and finally reunited. It’s a tip of the hat to the experience I had as a child, though I can’t imagine what my mother and father were actually going through. I just saw this extraordinary love. I don’t know what they went through to make it even stronger, but they were incredibly in love for 50 years. That’s had a huge influence on me and this song was a roundabout way of telling a little bit of their story—even though my father never had a tattoo.” She chuckles. “The imagery was just too irresistible.”
“Lonely Girl” and Nobody,” which offer markedly different takes on the single life, both began as melodies without words, while Harris was sketching out songs in her Nashville home months before she went into the studio. “Lonely Girl,” about woman still yearning for someone else even at the end of her life, “started with me noodling around in that open tuning. It kind of wrote itself. Having the melody carried me to the end.” Similarly, “Nobody” —whose subject finds herself ready to face, and embrace, the world on her own—evolved out of a chorus Harris had dreamed up: “Once again, choruses are my friend. I had this machine where I could put those harmonies on and I liked the way they spread out like a horn section.”
With her impeccable ear for a great song, Harris found two cover tunes to complete the album, musically and thematically. The sparsely arranged title track, a song Harris had been coveting for a while, comes from Canadian singer-songwriter Ron Sexsmith and describes a lover, friend, or even a guardian angel who repeatedly pulls someone back from the brink of falling apart. Says Harris, “I’m just grateful to have discovered the song. It was there for the plucking. Jay really loved it too and then we ended up calling the album Hard Bargain because it just seemed to tie everything together. The people in your life, and the joy of life, will always bring you back no matter what, and I think that’s echoed in every song in a way. I may be stretching things a little bit but if you had to, ‘Hard Bargain’ would sum up this particular song cycle.”
Joyce’s own luminous “Cross Yourself” serves as a hopeful, ethereal album closer, with a subtly spiritual undertone in its spare lyrics; Harris calls it “the perfect ‘dot dot dot’ song—you know, to be continued.” And that’s perhaps the overarching message of Hard Bargain: The music, like life, will go on.