Hard Bargain by EmmyLou Harris
Any review I offer of Emmylou Harris must be prefaced by the fact that I could listen to an entire album of her humming. Her voice is so distinct, so simultaneously wispy and potent that any shortcoming of any of her work is minimized by the mere fact that she is singing.
On her latest release, Hard Bargain, Harris’s music is like her voice—minimal yet powerful. The album was recorded using just three musicians but sounds full, based in small part on the guitar work of Jay Joyce (who also produced the record) and in large part on Harris’s vocals. The songs aren’t half bad either.
At age 64 Harris is not creating her best work—for that we need to go back a decade to 2000’s Red Dirt Girl. However, she is creating music that outshines other female musicians of any age, and Hard Bargain delivers the primary quality I look for with any record: a song or two that I want to wear out on my iTunes play count. In this case, it is the opening song, “The Road” that has mesmerized me, and the title track also has a vibe that is deep and playful.
“The Road” is a tribute to Gram Parsons, the popular songwriter from the 1960s and 70s who discovered Harris in 1971. The two worked together until Parsons’s death in 1973 from a drug overdose. Harris was deeply affected by the loss at the time, and “The Road” shows that even 40 years is not too long to remember. In fact, the whole record reflects the sort of wisdom one would expect from a 64 year old who has been making music for over 40 years.
Other cuts on the album move from the personal (“Lonely Girl” is a particularly vulnerable reflection on a life tinged with regret) to the social (Harris includes one song sung from the perspective of Emmett Till, an African American murdered in Mississippi in the 1960s for speaking to a white woman, and another about Hurricane Katrina), and in the tradition begun with Red Dirt Girl, Harris wrote all of the lyrics herself. Some of them are a bit trite, but all the songs on the record channel the country and blues tradition that Harris came up in and thus offer some sense of poignancy.
If you aren’t already a fan of Harris, I’d recommend starting with other records of hers, particularly Red Dirt Girl or Wrecking Ball. But once you are hooked on her voice, like Odysseus to the Sirens, then Hard Bargain, like the rest of her catalog, is an album worth owning. Harris is quite simply the finest singer still producing music in America.
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