Quarter Moon in a Ten Cent Town

Emmylou Harris: A Brilliant Eclectic Approach

By Joseph McLellan , February 1, 1978

One of the things we have enjoyed in this city and presumably will never enjoy again has been the chance to be part of a small audience listening to Emmylou Harris. In the last few years, after nearly making it several times (beginning to work with the Burrito Brothers just before they broke up, then accompanying Gram Parsons on the last tour and and the last album before his early death), Emmylou has now established herself with four solid albums from Warner Bros. The fourth one, just issued, may mark the breakthrough to the top of the field. If, as is rumored, her next album is done jointly with Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt, it will be like a meeting of equals.

Between here and superstardom, I can only see one problem, and it's a marketing problem, not an artistic one. On the evidence contained in "Quarter Moon in a Ten Cent Town" (Warner Bros.), there are at least four singers named Emmylou Harris. If she wants to boost her steady listeners from the thousands to the millions, she will probably have to decide to be just one of those four singers.

Less is more in the mass-marketing of records, particularly in the country field, because it's important for each one of your listeners to think that they really know you. They can't do that very easily in a place like Capital Centre, and they have trouble doing it at home if you don't build up a unified and fairly simple image that they can take hold of and say "Yeah, that's Emmylou." So it helps to be predictable - to do the same things over and over with small variations. It helps commercially, that is.

After four major-league records, the image is beginning to come into focus a little. Harris is definitely country (though she still sometimes strays near or across the border into pop or rock), but within the relatively large field of country music she handles more styles than other singers have been able to put successfully into one album. "Quarter Moon in a Ten Cent Town" is, in fact, a brilliant showcase of the variety of styles that have come to be accepted under the general heading of country music. It takes eight songwriters (or writing teams) to produce this variety; some well-known, others unknown. In either case, the material is chosen with exquisite care, sung with a fine sense of the appropriate style, and produced (by Brian Ahern) for maximum impact.

The albums's hit single is "To Daddy," by Dolly Parton-an archetype of the slick, commercial country song in our time, with a family situation right out of the Ann Landers column, a refrain ("She never did say so to Daddy") that adds new overtones of irony each time it comes back, and a melody closely patterned on Basic country Tune 2A. It's not really Emmylou's kind of material, except that she convinces you it is.

There is also a sample of pure, traditional country music in the hard times, nostalgic flavor and beautiful scenery of Utah Phillips' "Green Rolling Hills." This song is just one step away from bluegrass, and in recognition of this a touch of fiddle is given prominence in the arrangement.

A hard-edged rockabilly flavor crops up more often than any other- for example, in Delbert McClinton's "Two More Bottles of Wine", Winfield Scott's "Burn That Candle" and most particularly in "I Ain't Living Long Like This" (Rodney Crowell). A Cajun flavor is added to the mix in "Leaving Louisiana in the Broad Daylight" (Crowell and Donivan Cowart). In these songs, the pure-toned, little-girl voice heard elsewhere (which can sound like a cousin of Judy Collins) takes on a gutsy undertone, a nasal twang that is tailor-made for truck-stop juke-boxes.

Still another style is the philosophy-laden lyricism of Jesse Winchester's "Defying Gravity" and "My Songbird." These are thoughtful, melodious and closely linked to the deepest roots of the country tradition, which are basically religious. At the moment I personally like them better than anything else on the album-but that is undoubtedly a minority viewpoint. Practically every cut on "Quarter Moon in a Ten Cent Town" has hit potential, but the two most likely contenders, "Two More Bottles of Wine" and "I Ain't Living Long Like This" - are almost the diametrical opposites of the Jesse Winchester material.

If in fact, there is just one Emmylou Harris, she probably emerges most clearly profiled in the gently elegiac "Easy from Now On," the first cut on the album. This was written specially for her by Susanna Clark (Guy Clark's wife, who also painted the atmospheric album cover) and Carlene Routh, and it seems to contain a bit of symbolized autobiography, at least in the refrain: "It's gonna be easy from now on."

It should be. The years of showing potential are over, on the evidence of this album, and the years of fulfillment have arrived. In terms of style and pure vocal ability, Emmylou Harris has demonstrated that she can sing rings around most people in the field. She can handle just about any country song that comes along, but she picks her material thoughtfully, both for quality and variety. She also has some first class talent joining the "Hot Band" to back her up, including James Burton on electric guitar, Mickey Raphael on harmonica, Rick Danko on fiddle and vocals, and Ricky Skaggs on viola and fiddle.

At just about this point in her career, if it follows the pattern common in the music industry, people are going to start telling her that less is more - that she should cut down, specialize in one small corner of her large talent, perhaps start writing her owns songs and certainly begin building an image more compelling than that of merely a good singer who gets good material from other people.

I hope she will have the sense to put such suggestions in perspective. Undoubtedly there are impressive short-term capital gains to be made in that direction, but I think her most solid chance of long-term growth as an artist lies in the eclectic approach she demonstrates so brilliantly in this collection. For all their variety of style (and, to a lesser degree, of quality) there is not a single cut on "Quarter Moon in a Ten Cent Town" that I would willingly do without.And I look forward to many more collections of similar appeal.

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