Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The Cult of Emmylou

Emmylou Harris--"Long May You Run (live)" (mp3)
Emmylou Harris, with Gillian Welch and David Rawlings--"Green Pastures (live)" (mp3)

Women don't get it, I don't think. My wife certainly doesn't. She thinks that I live in a state of perpetual heat, a stallion wanting to frolic in the pastures and lie down in the grasses with Emmylou Harris. She thinks that everytime I hear Emmylou Harris' voice it is a trigger for lust.

She is wrong.

While I wouldn't deny that Emmylou Harris is an attractive older woman, it isn't about that.

But she is onto something, my wife, and it may be something far more threatening to a fellow female than her stallion's attraction to another mare.

Most men I know belong to the cult of Emmylou. I do. Don't you?

And yes, "cult" implies worship, and worship is involved. Now, I don't necessarily want to get all Little Mermaid here, but what we worship is her voice. We worship that purity of tone, that bit of country syrup, that fragile, about-to-crack quality that she has developed in her later years. As much as anything, we may worship the way her voice harmonizes with other voices, especially male voices, so perfectly.

After all, if I were so head-over-heels for Emmylou, I'd have everything she ever recorded, wouldn't I? I don't. I've got like 4 CDs. Well, five, if you count that live one, and six, if you add in her Christmas album. She's released 27 studio or live albums. Okay, I might have seven, now that I think of it. And that duet album with Linda Rondstadt.

But really, my E.H. collection pales in comparison to the number of other people's CDs that I have that she sings on--Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Bright Eyes, Elvis Costello, Ryan Adams, Gram Parsons, Guy Clark, Steve Earle, the Vigilantes of Love, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, The Seldom Scene, Buddy and Julie Miller, O, Brother, Where Art Thou?, and Mark Knopfler, among many others.

So here's the problem. Cult? Check. Worship? Check. And then I remind myself that we humans tend to worship what we think is greater than we are. Uh-oh. I read a review about ten years ago that described her as having "the voice of an angel." I agree. Hmmm. That is a problem. Let's see, our women already know that we think that Emmylou Harris is attractive, at least, and now, on top of that, we have deified her voice. So, in effect, we are saying that this woman, or at least her voice, because it's really about the voice, you know, can sound like a heavenly creature, something no mere mortal woman could hope to achieve?

Or maybe it's because there isn't really a counterpart. I mean, who is the male version of Emmylou Harris? The best I could come up with was Eddie Vedder, simply because, at least for awhile, he showed up all over the place, singing with everyone from Neil Young and Pete Townshend to Neil Finn. Maybe it's Phil Collins.

Because I mean, if you start playing music randomly in the rock, folk, and country genres, you're going to hear Emmylou's voice. In fact, you're going to hear it a lot.

And that brings to light the other issue: it's difficult, if not impossible, to get tired of Emmylou Harris' voice. It's like cowbell. You want more. I've only heard her ruin a song once, singing backup on a live version of Steve Earle performing "Christmastime in Washington," where her voice didn't really fit.

There used to be a BASF slogan that they'd use on NPR: "We don't make the products you use; we make the products you use better." That is Emmylou Harris' voice.

You want to make a tender or nostalgic song sound more poignant? Listen to her join in on Neil Young's "This Old Guitar" in the film, Heart of Gold or on "My Sweet Carolina" off Ryan Adams' Heartbreaker. You want a sultry place to seem more magical, check out her word-for-word duet with Dylan on "Mozambique." You want to capture tragedy? Hear how Bill Mallonee uses her on "Resplendent." You want to hear how Gram Parsons or Townes Van Zandt songs should sound now that they are gone? Try her versions of "Pancho and Lefty" or "Wheels" or "She."

I know you wouldn't, but should you want to ignore the heavenly and return to the earthly and crawl into bed with her, then give a listen to "I Don't Want To Talk About It" from Red Dirt Girl.
If you could hear everything that Emmylou Harris has been a part of for the past 40 years, it could serve as a thick primer for what has been good in popular music--the songs she's chosen to sing, the people she's chosen to sing with, the songs she's written.

I'd have to imagine the cult is pretty big, maybe too big to be a cult, and more like a religion. Oh, yeah, she rescues dogs, too.

Thanks to Cover Lay Down for the live track.


Anonymous said...

Totally agree with you about how women respond to her. My ex hated her voice in the same way that she hated Bill Mallonee's voice, an irrational, passionate distaste. Emmylou's vocal phrasings remind me, of all people, of some of the more muted Frank Sinatra--she takes you to places that you don't expect but then when you listen to the song over and over (as you will inevitably do) you realize that her placing was perfect and your expectation, merely predictable.

She rescues dogs, too? No wonder I like her.

troutking said...

I like here Live at the Ryman CD with the Nash Ramblers. Does she cover the Boss on it? Check.

Billy said...

Patty Griffin is my Emmylou. Which is more a statement about a generational gap that makes you and John OLD and me a virtual spring chicken.

Patty has attempted to make her post-"Flaming Red" career follow a very similar path to Emmylou's, it seems. Her voice is all over other people's records (including, most recently, Robert Plant's new CD), and her songs continue to get covered by big names.

They've also toured several times together and shown up regularly alongside one another on other records as well as each other's records.

And I guess I'm not too much of a spring chicken if I use the word "records."

Anonymous said...

Billy, as your fellow PG groupie, I agree with your take. Guess that means that I straddle you and Bob. Generationally. Not in a creepy way.

Thom Anon said...

I'd drink Emmylou's kool-aid, alright.

Patty Who?


PS--And there's no male equivalent, because the role of Journeyman Harmonizer is kind of, um, gay.

Daisy said...

You gotta love a chick who's not afraid to go gray.

Anonymous said...

Oh boy... I love Emmylou as much as I hate the Rolling Stones. I love everything about her - her sound, her gray hair, her Gibson J200, her ass. Yes it's irrational but whatever. And like most women, my wife hates her for probably all the same reasons.