Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Emmylou Harris

  • Pieces of the Sky [Reprise, 1974] C+
  • Elite Hotel [Reprise, 1975] C+
  • Luxury Liner [Reprise, 1976] B
  • Profile: The Best of Emmylou Harris [Reprise, 1978] B+
  • At the Ryman [Reprise, 1992] **
  • Cowgirl's Prayer [Asylum, 1993] Choice Cuts
  • Songs of the West [Warner Bros., 1994] *
  • Wrecking Ball [Elektra, 1995] B
  • Spyboy [Eminent, 1998] Dud
  • Red Dirt Girl [Nonesuch, 2000] C

See Also:

Consumer Guide Reviews:

Pieces of the Sky [Reprise, 1974]
Abetted by Brian Ahern, who would have been wise to add some Anne Murray schlock, Harris shows off a pristine earnestness that has nothing to do with what is most likable about country music and everything to do with what is most suspect in "folk." Presumably, Gram Parsons was tough enough to discourage this tendency or play against it, but as a solo mannerism it doesn't even ensure clear enunciation: I swear the chorus of the best song here sounds like it begins: "I will rub my asshole/In the bosom of Abraham." C+

Elite Hotel [Reprise, 1975]
This flows better than the first, but it also makes clear that Emmylou is just another pretty voice, a country singer by accident. I mean, Linda Ronstadt has the best female voice in country music, and even she doesn't satisfy the way an original like Dolly Parton or Loretta Lynn does. And since there's not a cover version here that equals its prototype, all she accomplishes with her good taste in material is to send you scurrying for the sources. I prefer Donna Fargo. Not Lynn Anderson, though. C+

Luxury Liner [Reprise, 1976]
Not content with her corner on the wraith-with-a-twang market, some folk's favorite folkie manque has added funk and raunch and echo and overdub to her voice. The result is a record I play some, perhaps out of sheer surprise. Song selection also helps--an unforgettable Townes Van Zandt melody is unearthed, and the two Gram Parsons selections don't automatically shame themselves by recalling the originals. B

Profile: The Best of Emmylou Harris [Reprise, 1978]
Lucky for Emmylou I don't know as much about country music as she does--the Louvin Brothers' "If I Could Only Win Your Love" and the Carter Family's "Hello Stranger" may well render her versions forgettable. But as it is, hers sure are pretty, like almost everything here, sung with undeniable care and charm. She also defines Dolly Parton's previously unrecorded "To Daddy," as great a song as that great songwriter has ever come up with. And does all right by Chuck Berry. B+

At the Ryman [Reprise, 1992]
grand old newfangled one-woman hootenanny ("Hard Times," "Guitar Town") **

Cowgirl's Prayer [Asylum, 1993]
"Jerusalem Tomorrow" Choice Cuts

Songs of the West [Warner Bros., 1994]
selflessly serving the song for 17 years ("Queen of the Silver Dollar," "I'll Be Your San Antone Rose") *

Wrecking Ball [Elektra, 1995]
The reason Harris's instant comeback is an irritation, not a tragedy, is that the inspired collaborator and nonpareil backup singer has no vision of her own for Daniel Lanois to ruin. Her artistic personality has always been coextensive with her miraculously lucid voice, which now that it's fraying with age is ripe for Lanois's one seductive trick: to gauze over every aural detail and call your soft focus soul. I doubt she would have nailed the songs anyway--often she doesn't. But she would have come closer than this. B

Spyboy [Eminent, 1998] Dud

Red Dirt Girl [Nonesuch, 2000]
What a weird (dishonest? ironic? clueless?) name for a record that's all literature and arty sound effects. Even the title song, while indeed describing the white South of the artist's putative roots, balances on the fulcrum of a four-syllable word: Meridian, which joins allelujah, sanctuary, Antonia, and great big Michelangelo in reminding us that Harris has put away childish things. Instead we get a record worthy of her (to mush up review gush) "celestial" and "eminent" voice, one that "shimmers with poetic imagery and soul." Mortality, redemption, angels, all the important stuff, adorned with Daniel-Lanois-once-removed soundscape. Nary an antiwar song, yet you know Joan Baez is proud. C

Further Notes:

Subjects for Further Research [1980s]: In 1984 I wrote off her second best-of ("pristine neobluegrass, pristine rock oldies") even though I'd already put 1980's pristine neobluegrass Roses in the Snow on my A shelves. But 1986's rockish Thirteen impressed me almost as much as 1987's Parton-Ronstadt-Harris Trio, which Harris held together--this reformed folkie always sounds great on other people's records. She's genuinely at home in Nashville, and put into relief by competition like Nanci Griffith, Kathy Mattea, and Lacy J. Dalton, she may well deserve to stand up there between Rosanne Cash and Reba McEntire. That best-of sounds better now.