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梩hree of them co-written with Grammy?and Oscar杦inning composer Will Jennings梩hat touch on the autobiographical while reaching for the universal. She recalls the storied time she spent with her mentor Gram Parsons (揟he Road? and composes a sweet remembrance of the late singer-songwriter Kate McGarrigle (揇arlin?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 揗y 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抯 perspective; on 揋oodnight Old World,?she fashions a bittersweet lullaby to her newly born grandchild, contrasting a grown-up抯 world-weariness with a baby抯 wide-eyed wonder. 揃ig 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抯 Retreat on her property, rescued Bella from the Nashville Metro pound and provided an especially happy ending to her story: 揝he 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抦 making up for lost time now, that抯 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梙opefully if not inevitably梒omes with getting older, though she抯 never stopped looking ahead. The candor of Harris抯 words is matched by a simple, elegantly rendered production from Jay Joyce (Patty Griffin, Jack Ingram, Cage the Elephant), with whom she抎 previously recorded a theme for the romantic drama, Nights in Rodanthe. While Harris抯 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梕mploying piano, pump organ, and synths as well as playing percussion梒onjured gorgeous atmospherics, often giving these tracks, as Harris puts it, 揳 floaty, dreamy quality.?
揑t抯 such a beautifully realized sound,?says Harris. 揥e didn抰 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 慚y Name Is Emmett Till.?It抯 a simple part but it just breaks my heart whenever I hear it. It抯 like a cry from heaven or something. Jay works really fast but he puts so much thought into what he does. I抳e 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 揟he Road,?with its layers of reverb-doused electric guitars and harmony-packed chorus, Harris addresses, more forthrightly than she抯 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, 揑 think you get to a certain point in your life where you do gaze back over the years and it抯 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抰 imagine that Gram wouldn抰 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 揟he Ship on His Arm?was borrowed from a Terry Allen drawing that Guy Clark抯 wife had given Harris a copy of, and the lyrics were inspired by the story of Harris抯 own parents, whose marriage was tested when her Marine father went missing in action during the Korean War: 揑 made up a story about a young couple who were separated and finally reunited. It抯 a tip of the hat to the experience I had as a child, though I can抰 imagine what my mother and father were actually going through. I just saw this extraordinary love. I don抰 know what they went through to make it even stronger, but they were incredibly in love for 50 years. That抯 had a huge influence on me and this song was a roundabout way of telling a little bit of their story梕ven though my father never had a tattoo.?She chuckles. 揟he imagery was just too irresistible.?
揕onely 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. 揕onely Girl,?about woman still yearning for someone else even at the end of her life, 搒tarted with me noodling around in that open tuning. It kind of wrote itself. Having the melody carried me to the end.?Similarly, 揘obody?梬hose subject finds herself ready to face, and embrace, the world on her own梕volved out of a chorus Harris had dreamed up: 揙nce 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, 揑抦 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抯 echoed in every song in a way. I may be stretching things a little bit but if you had to, 慔ard Bargain?would sum up this particular song cycle.?
Joyce抯 own luminous 揅ross Yourself?serves as a hopeful, ethereal album closer, with a subtly spiritual undertone in its spare lyrics; Harris calls it 搕he perfect 慸ot dot dot?song梱ou know, to be continued.? And that抯 perhaps the overarching message of Hard Bargain: The music, like life, will go on.
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