Portraits

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    "Portraits"
    review by Kevin O'Hare
    Minneapolis Star Tribune, Oct. 22, 1996

    Emmylou Harris never really played the Nashville game and never let its walls confine her. When she wasn't reviving country, folk and bluegrass from the first half of the century, she was recording with Gram Parsons, the Band and Bob Dylan, or singing songs by Chuck Berry, the Beatles and Paul Simon. Mostly, she was maintaining a fierce musical independence that's been her calling card since her career began. That career has been thoughtfully chronicled on this three-CD box set containing 61 songs recorded between 1974 and 1992.

    It's a brilliant retrospective. Opening with her signature 'Boulder to Birmingham,' it takes listeners on a soul-sweeping journey from four early collaborations with the late Parsons to such '70s gems as 'Sweet Dreams,' 'Luxury Liner' and Townes Van Zandt's 'Pancho and Lefty.' Harris' wondrous voice always loaned itself well to collaborations, and there are some stunning ones here -- most notably her heart-aching duet with Roy Orbison, 'That Loving You Feeling Again.'

    The '80s and early '90s are also well-represented, including her deeply compelling cover of James Taylor's 'Millworker' and a killer take of John Hiatt's 'Icy Blue Heart,' with Bonnie Raitt on slide guitar. There are also a handful of previously unreleased standouts, including versions of Richard Thompson's 'Dimming of the Day' and Dylan's 'When I Paint My Masterpiece.'

    "Angel Came Down From Heaven"
    By Michael Corcoran
    Austin American-Statesman, Oct. 24, 1996

    Hitmakers come and go and great songs whiz by like God's neutrons, but for all those who have played popular music and had some success, only a handful of artists have kept a steady vision and remained classy and vital throughout a lengthy career. Scratch the Beatles, Bob Dylan and Rolling Stones, who've broken up, broken down and devolved into a bar band, respectively. Get rid of all those acts like Aretha Franklin, Elvis Costello, Warren Zevon, Sly Stone, Stevie Wonder and John Fogerty, who burned brilliantly for a period of time that is long gone. Then take out everyone who recorded a disco song in the '70s or found religion or went through rehab or died young or contributed tracks to more than one tribute album and you've got a very short list.

    But one name that cannot be left off is Emmylou Harris, who picked up the torch of brazen and true country music after the 1973 heroin overdose death of her mentor, Gram Parsons. A new three-disc boxed set, 'Portraits,' which chronicles her glorious 1975-92 period on Warner-Reprise, shows Harris to be an artist who has continuously elevated the standards of country music.

    Guarding her tremendous gift with a perfectionist streak, Harris made great entire albums, especially the opening trio of 'Pieces of the Sky,' 'Elite Hotel' and 'Luxury Liner,' which hold up magificently today. That her '95 LP 'Wrecking Ball' ended up on so many year-end critics' lists testifies to Harris' current vibrancy at age 49.

    Harris didn't write many songs: Of the 61 cuts in this set, she wrote or co-wrote only five. And with the exception of her collaboration with Parsons on 'In My Hour of Darkness,' those compositions are not highlights. Her greatest attribute, however, is in vocally and musically influsing the right dignified rural spirit into the material, which is why no one else can quite do the Louvin Brothers like Harris can. Starting out on the folk and coffeehouse circuit on the Eastern seabord, Harris tapped into the compassion of the movement and never lost it even as she moved closer to Nashville standards. Hers is a voice that cares in the subtlest, deepest ways.

    Country radio and the conservative listeners that dictate its playlists have long been maligned as middle-of-the-roadsters, but give Nashville credit for embracing this free spirit with hippie hair and high boots even more vigorously than pop and rock audiences did. Their sweet songbird Emmylou had the voice, the band, the songs, the heart and it didn't matter to country audiences that she lived in L.A. and ran with the rockers. Talent like this transcends any preconceptions.

    'Together Again' ('76), 'Sweet Dreams' ('76), 'Two More Bottles of Wine' ('78) and 'Beneath Still Watrs' (''80) all hit No. 1, as did 'To Know Him Is to Love Him' ('87), from her 'Trio' album with Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt.

    But it's not like rock audiences haven't been supportive. Throughout the '70s, Harris was -- along with Ronstadt, the Eagles, Pure Prairie League and Poco -- one of the singers who made country palatable for kids whose only exposure to the genre was through 'Dead Flowers' by the Rolling Stones, 'Sweetheart of the Rodeo' by the Parsons-led Byrds and the soundtrack to 'The Last Picture Show.'

    But Harris' passion seemed to run deeper than the So. Cal dippers. You got the feeling that she really understood what the Louvin Brothers and Bill Monroe were all about. This Alabama native (raised in the D.C. suburbs) knew that Buck Owens was much more than the bug-eyed clown on 'Hee Haw' and that Dolly Parton was more than the sum of her measurements. In later years, Harris would bring out the best in such songwriters as Richard Thompson ('Dimming of the Day'), Bruce Springsteen ('The Price You Pay'), Butch Hancock ('West Texas Waltz') and Townes Van Zandt ('If I Needed You'). But shed'd always return, as she did with 'At the Ryman,' to her core of bluegrass and gospel.

    Those who have most of Harris' CDs should be tempted to plunk down boxed set money on this collection because of four previously unreleased tracks, especially a great version of 'When I Paint My Masterpiece,' the Dylan song associated with the Band. There's also a gorgeous Don McLean ballad, 'And I Love You So,' which is as good as anything she's ever done. The selections are generally first-rate (one omission is Hancock's 'If You Were a Bluebird') and sequencing, which follows emotional rather than chronological guidelines, puts some of the old songs in a new light.

    One of the best reasons to buy this set, however, is to thank country-rock's eternal angel for more than 20 years of great music. Forget the Hall of Fame, Emmylou Harris is a national treasure.

    Review: Emmylou Harris - Portraits (Reprise Archives)

    Stephen Ide, @Country
    Rating: 5 out of 5

    Emmylou Harris - Portraits (Reprise Archives)

    When you speak of country music, you can't get far without discussing Emmylou Harris. A sweet and reverent singer, Harris stands as a model for independent musicians, having bridged the gap between folk, rock and country without leaving behind a single fan. Her trademark long, flowing hair is symbolic of her steadfastness in the ever-changing, sales-oriented meat market of commercial music. Harris, who's released over 20 albums since the 1960s, has always been a musical perfectionist, whether it's exploring the folk-oriented songs of Townes Van Zandt or the country lyricism of Rodney Crowell. Though everything she performed did not turn to gold -- at least not immediately -- Harris made sure every song was melodically sound, and every nuance explored.

    Portraits traces her career in a stunning retrospective. Three discs reflect much of her best work, from hit songs to more obscure ones, originals to covers and solos to collaborations. Her musical acquaintances and influences are credentials enough to explain how a Southern-born diva, who grew up around Washington, D.C. in a military family became a star. This set includes songs performed with Gram Parsons (Flying Burrito Brothers, International Submarine Band), Don Everly (Everly Brothers), The Band, Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt, Don Williams, Roy Orbison, Willie Nelson, Earl Thomas Conley and Flaco Jimenez.

    Disc One touches on early years -- 1974 to 1978 -- from duets with Parsons (the sweet, tender melody of "In My Hour of Darkness" from Parsons' last album, Grievous Angel) to hit songs such as the Louvin Brothers' "If I Could Only Win Your Love," Delbert McClinton's "Two More Bottles of Wine" and the Susanna Clark/Carlene Carter-penned "Easy From Now On." Disc Two explores a period in which Harris returned to her roots with the title songs from Blue Kentucky Girl and Roses in the Snow. With songs from 1977 to 1982, this disc demonstrates Harris' remarkable range and musical diversity, from the three-part harmony of The Trio's "Mr. Sandman" to covers from Bruce Springsteen ("The Price You Pay"), Paul Simon ("The Boxer") and James Taylor ("Millworker"). Disc Three, covering 1983 to 1992, continues to reveal a breadth of music that few musicians could pull off: Nanci Griffith's "Gulf Coast Highway" and John Hiatt's "Icy Blue Heart" are contrasted with Stephen Foster's "Hard Times" or the Bill Monroe/Peter Rowan classic "Walls of Time," taken from her 1992 album At the Ryman.

    Previously unreleased material includes Richard Thompson's mesmerizing "Dimming of the Day," Bob Dylan's "When I Paint My Masterpiece," and others by Kate and Anna McGarrigle, Don McLean and Kris Kristofferson.

    Produced by Gregg Geller, this album has everything Harris fans have come to expect: Her high, luscious and luminescent soprano mixed with songs that have stood the test of time. At 49, Harris' music has traveled every road in Nashville, from traditional to new country, hard-won honky-tonkers to precious and sincere ballads. Long overdue and many times delayed, this compilation does justice to a reigning queen of the heart.

    PORTRAITS RELEASED BY WARNERS IN EUROPE
    by Alan Cackett in January's Country Music International:

    A comprehensive 3-cd box containing 61 selections (including five previously unissued recordings) covering Emmylou Harris's career with Warner-Reprise that started way back in 1975 with the classic Pieces of the Sky and finished in 1992 with At the Ryman. Emmylou got her start singing harmonies with Gram Parsons so it is only appropriate that four of the recordings here are taken from the brief two-year period that she worked with Parsons.

    Throughout her recordings, the greater the challenge the song provides, the more inspired the performance becomes. She has no peers when it comes to Boulder to Birmingham, a wedding of song and voice creating sheer beauty.

    Alongside the duet performances with Parsons, there are also duets with Don Williams, Roy Orbison, Willie Nelson, Earl Thomas Conley and selections from Trio, the acclaimed album she recorded with Linda Ronstadt and Dolly Parton.

    Ms Emm covers all bases of country, from bluegrass to country rock, folk to mainstream country and everything in-between. To each style she adds the distinctive Emmylou Harris touch. The previously unissued tracks include a live version You're Still On My Mind (a song she used to perform with Parsons), Richard Thompson's Dimming of The Day, Don McLean's And I Love You So, Kristofferson's Casey's Last Ride and Bob Dylan's When I Paint My Masterpiece. Why they were left in the vaults gathering dust is a mystery. More than just a portrait, this is a priceless pot of gold that should be in every country music fan's collection.

  • USA Today: "This wonderfully diverse collection indicates that Harris' greatest gifts may be her intuitive snese of what works for her and her ability to cross musical borders with credibility intact," David Zimmerman wrote Dec. 5 in a blurb accompanied by an Asylum Records handout photo. "Harris' voice, which grows heavier and even more evocative through the years, always reminds listeners of the music's high-lonesome Anglo-Celtic roots."
  • NY Daily News: "The extraordinary thing about Emmylou Harris is how quietly she built the 25-year body of work that comprises this exceptional set," David Hinckley wrote Nov. 24. "If you buy only one boxed set this season, this stands tall above the rest. It's that almost unheard-of box that leaves you wanting more."
  • Newsday (Long Island, NY): Freelancer Robbie Woliver did a joint review Nov. 24 of Emmylou's set and 'Souvenirs' from Connie Francis, noting that their "career retrospectives demonstrate that they do have one important thing in common -- teardrop vocals." He described 'Portraits' as "so exquisite" and "a gem," adding that it "displays Harris' transcendent, impeccable taste, revealing why she's become an inspiration to many others. ... While Harris has a teardrop in her voice, the less subtle Francis sheds a torrent of tears."
  • San Francisco Chronicle: Pop critic Joel Selvin gave it 3 stars on Nov. 29, noting: "Her authenticity pierced the Nashville good ol' boys circle, and this box chronicles her outsider's march from the duets with country-rock maverick Gram Parsons to an album recorded live on the hallowed stage at Ryman Auditorium."
  • Denver Post: In a similar vein, arts writer Steven Rosen told Colorado readers on Nov. 30: "Through sheer talent, Harris became a country-music star even while going against Nashville's commercial grain. But she also remained frustratingly outside the larger pop-rock market, even though her music was at least as compelling as Linda Ronstadt's of the Eagles'. This is a good chance for those just now discovering good, progressive country music to discover what they missed. ... And no one should live in Colorado without having heard Harris' 'Boulder to Birmingham.' "
  • Sacramento Bee: "This is one good-looking portrait."
  • Ottawa Citizen (Ontario): Norm Provencher praised "a sparkling set."
  • Milwaukee Journal: "Emmylou Harris is in many ways the godmother of the contemporary country scene. Over the years, she's nurtured the young, reminded us of the value of the old, and never been afraid to strike a fresh path. And she's done it tastefully and with unerring grace. If more artists displayed the integrity outlined in 'Portraits,' we wouldn't hear nearly so many wooried debates about the future of country music."
  • Sunday NY Times: Here's what long-time reviewer Stephen Holden had to say:
    "A forerunner of country music's new traditionalism, as well as an inventor of modern country-rock, Emmylou Harris makes music that softened country's twanging accent without violating its spirit of rural simplicity. Her classicist's vision accommodated James taylor, the Beatles and Bob Dylan as easily as it did Stephen Foster, Dolly Parton and Appalachian mountain music.
    "in addition to highlights from her 18-year solo career on Reprise, this beautifully chosen 61-song set includes 4 duets with Gram Parsons, 3 selections from the 'trio' album with Ms. Parton and Linda Ronstadt, and 5 previously unreleased tracks."
  • Entertainment Weekly magazine Bob Cannon says: "Harris is the real deal, a singer whose unerring song selection and crystalline voice have made her country's foremost interpreter. This three-disc set includes early duets with mentor Gram Parsons, previously unreleased tracks and virtually every necessary Harris track from 1974-92. A perfect introduction to a maverick who has chosen quality over trends and kept the heart of authentic country music beating."

    Back to Emmylou

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