By Peter Cooper
music writer, The Tennessean
published: September 10, 2000
"The world will be the witness/ When they excavate my heart," Emmylou Harris sings on Red Dirt Girl, her first album of mostly self-written songs since 1985's The Ballad of Sally Rose.
Indeed, though Sally Rose (co-written with Paul Kennerly) was seen by many as virtually autobiographical, Red Dirt Girl is as close as Harris has come to allowing her listeners an elongated look at her inner life.
That would be enough for those interested in the cult-of-Emmylou, those who would pay for a glimpse inside her pocketbook ... and there are many in that club. But more important than whether this album reveals what was hidden (it probably does, though she sheds light on an emotional landscape rather than handing over a key to the skeleton closet) is whether it contains songs that measure up with the best of her work.
Harris, after all, has made her mark as a singer and a song scavenger who has unearthed gems like Rodney Crowell's Till I Gain Control Again, David Olney's Jerusalem Tomorrow, Julie Miller's All My Tears, Danny Flowers' Before Believing, Utah Phillips' Green Rolling Hills and Butch Hancock's If You Were A Bluebird.
Further, in her 25-year career as a solo artist, she has scattered a few of her her own songs into the mix. Several of those are quite memorable; Boulder To Birmingham, Prayer In Open D and Tulsa Queen come to mind, as well as the fabulous I'll Never Get Out Of This Love Alive, which she contributed to last year's duet album with Linda Ronstadt.
Excepting Sally Rose, which owed much to Kennerly's "king of the concept album" writing talents, Harris' songs never appeared in bulk. They were snippets, not career turns.
And so Red Dirt Girl is risky, nervy or reckless, depending on your point of view. Harris' previously unassailable reputation is at stake, and the album's layered soundscape (more like 1995's dense Wrecking Ball than like her previous country, folk and bluegrass-rooted efforts) is unlikely to please the critics and fans who want her to sound like she did in 1978.
But, gosh, this is a beautifully hewn, aching, intelligent, important piece of work. A lifetime of deep listening has produced in Harris a narrative voice that bears scant resemblance to any of her admitted songwriting influences (Gram Parsons, Bob Dylan, Ira Louvin and Bruce Springsteen among them) while retaining the better qualities (minus Dylan's brilliant freak-dream imagery stuff) of all of them.
The harrowing poison lust tale Go Down and the eloquently plainspoken Bang the Drum Slowly (which bears co-writer Guy Clark's craftsman's hand) are riveting, and the story-song title track is a gripping triumph of spare, brush-stroked artistry. Most stunning is Tragedy, as affecting as any song she's ever recorded.
Harris stumbles occasionally, as when she and producer Malcolm Burn get a little too close to the ultra-artsy sonic guard rail on My Antonia, a duet with Dave Matthews. J'ai fait tout also crosses the line between hypnotic and redundant. Her one cover choice, the Patty Griffin/Angelo-penned One Big Love, is a fine, groove-based song intended as a mood lightener, but it seems out of place here (Griffin's phenomenal Mary, a rumination on motherhood and Christianity, would have kept things down-tempo but might have been more appropriate on an album that dwells on both of these, and Harris would sing the heck out of it).
But those quibbles are forgotten and forgiven by the time Harris reaches the album's closer, Boy From Tupelo. While the song references Elvis, it's mostly about an escape from the kind of love that binds Go Down. The song's protagonist is gone like "Maybelle (Carter) on the radio," like "the boy from Tupelo," like "the five and dime."
Harris' willingness to change sounds, bands and modes of operation means she'll not disappear like that Mississippi-born, Memphis-ruined boy she sings about. She has gone from duet partner (with Gram Parsons and hundreds since then) to country superstar to acoustic revivalist (with Angel Band and At the Ryman) to alt-country godmother. Now she's proven herself deserving of a designation so many others take for granted but which Harris refused to take on until she could get it right: singer-songwriter.
A good one, too.