A team-player who thrives on collaboration and experimentation, Emmylou Harris has never compromised on quality, throughout a career that divides into rich and distinct yet overlapping periods.
Harris grew up in the folk club scene and merged into country music when she met Gram Parsons in the 1970s, finding herself falling in love with his left-field approach to creativity.
“I had the passion and the interest in the song ethics from the folk music, combined with the structure and the beauty and subtle poetry of country music, that really forged me as a singer”, she once said. “I haven't worried about country parameters - I always push the envelope. I know there's people out there who want me to take chances and that's very empowering.”
Here we look back at 20 of her greatest songs.
One of those songs it’s virtually impossible to resist dancing along to. Emmylou really went for it with this acoustic, Appalachian bluegrass album, nodding to country music’s past.
When preparing for her superb duets album with her friend Linda Ronstadt, Emmylou searched for exactly the right songs and found this from singer-songwriter Jackson Browne.
“I'm constantly trying to find songs for Linda, wanting to match, I kind of like to do that”, she once said. “Sometimes I'll hear a song and even if it's not something that's right for me, I think, boy, this would be nice for so-and-so. I'm a matchmaker.”
This song is a fantastic testimony to one of the finest country-rock ensembles ever assembled: Emmylou’s Hot Band. Fortunately for the archives, Emmylou was an Old Grey Whistle Test favourite, captured here in 1977.
Getting right to the devastating heart of Emmylou’s major label debut is fan favourite ‘Boulder to Birmingham’, her tribute to her recently deceased inspiration, Gram Parsons. She could have struggled or even given up, but instead rises like a phoenix here.
Emmylou would apparently sit and knit between takes when Gram Parsons was recording, listening to his musicians, including future Hot Band members.
“By singing with Gram,” she said, “I learned that you plough under and let the melody and words carry you. Rather than this emoting thing, emotion will happen on its own. You have to have a restraint in how you approach the song.”
‘That’s All It Took’ shows their harmonies gelling despite completely different types of vocals – drawing comparisons with George Jones and Tammy Wynette.
From the game-changing album Wrecking Ball, this is a simply outstanding take on a fabulous McGarrigle composition.
This song could have easily ended up on the Trio record with Linda Ronstadt and Dolly Parton, but according to Emmylou, it was shelved when Parton admitted she just didn’t understand it!
A bona fide no.1 hit!
Emmylou suggested this song when she agreed to duet with Earl Thomas Conley. She’d already thought of an arrangement, but he was nervous, as he idolised her and wasn’t sure if their voices would fit; his rough and dirty and hers so pure.
Her advice was to just feel the song, and it really is their differences that transform their harmonies, and the song as a whole, into something great.
This Townes Van Zandt song is from one of Emmylou’s bestselling albums, and boy, it really shows off her famous Hot Band.
Crowell was invited to join the band in California, and was instantly transformed by them. “It was a great education for me,” he says, “because I went from the craft of lyrical songwriting to being with musicians, where the next thing for me to learn was how to arrange music and how to understand the language of arranging music.”
Simple yet poignant, this is another divine slow tune, written by Buck Owens in 15 minutes in the small hours, and apparently dismissed by him as a throwaway song.
He originally put it on a B-side, but Emmylou’s remake topped the charts. She saw it as a happy song that isn’t too corny, the Elite Hotel album it featured on winning her a Grammy.
A rip-snortingly good cover of the Chuck Berry classic. Even now, Crowell credits Emmylou’s band with forcing a paradigm shift in his development as a singer-songwriter, producer and all-around performer. “They spoke a musical language that I did not know. The things I learned then I’m still using today.”
This is the song that Emmylou calls “perfect”, taken from her bluegrass country crossover record.
At the time the album made her record label nervous, but it produced several hits, including this. She was rewarded by the album winning her a Grammy for Best Country Vocal by a Female.
Many new fans wouldn’t have known this was a complete reinvention of Emmylou, but still utterly in keeping with her past work.
She admits that some people heard the record and thought she’d been “abducted by aliens”, but wasn’t remotely bothered by this, explaining that it’s all about her own judgement: “it has to pump me; ultimately I'm the first member of the jury.”
This no.1 hit is transformed into a raucous, barroom stomp of a tune. The avid song collector Emmylou got turned onto Delbert McClinton’s music by his 1975 album Victim Of Life’s Circumstances and was pleased to discover she could sing this song from a woman’s point of view.
Talk about keeping it in the family! This beautiful song was written by the great Julie Miller, whose guitarist husband Buddy became an integral part of Emmylou’s Spyboy band soon after.
The Wrecking Ball record – from which this is taken – won the 1996 Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Folk Recording, as Emmylou continued to experiment and push herself creatively.
After nine years of trying, Emmylou and her friends Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt finally got their act together for this record (and two more) of sublime harmonies and unexpected covers. This Phil Spector song was the only single from Trio to top the charts.
Covered many times by many artists, here this Don Gibson composition is slowed right down, a makeover which helped Emmylou become the only person to take the song to no.1.
It was recorded at the very end of the first Hot Band tour over three days at the Roxy, when she was trying to capture their energy on tape.
It’s hard to know exactly what genre this falls into, as it changes even within the song. But frankly, Emmylou didn’t care, saying: “Whatever buzzes, whatever shimmers is right, and that's what makes a recording magic, not getting everything perfect, but getting that performance that has an emotional resonance.”
Although this came out at the beginning of 1999, much of the Trio 2 album had been recorded with Parton and Ronstadt back in 1994, then sat on the shelf.
In many ways the record was a big step forward for the trio of superstars, covering more contemporary songs, including this version of Neil Young’s classic ‘After The Gold Rush’. The song won the Grammy for Best Country Collaboration with Vocals.
Until she was in her fifties, Emmylou hadn’t really stretched her songwriting muscles, but this entire album – save one track – was composed by her. In fact, it was so good that she said: “Even I wondered whether Red Dirt Girl was a fluke.” This title track was one of the key songs in this highly productive period.
Emmylou says she became a singer from working with Gram Parsons, as he gave her a focus and direction, and taught her how to use her voice. He made her more disciplined and restrained with her phrasing, but also passionate about country music.
This deliciously slow version of a much-covered classic illustrates how Emmylou’s instinctive harmonies transformed this, and Parsons’ previous album, GP.
“Our singing came together on ‘Love Hurts’. I finally learned what I was supposed to do.” Always the perfectionist, she adds: “I go back now and think about how much better I could’ve been. His singing is so incredible, he sings with such subtlety.”
You can listen and subscribe to The Best Emmylou Harris Songs playlist below: