Favorite Songs by Favorite Artists: Emmylou Harris

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February 20, 2008

With her long overdue induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame finally coming to pass, it seems the perfect time to take a look at my favorite Emmylou Harris songs.I’ll admit, I wasn’t an instant fan. Her voice is an acquired taste, but once I was hooked, it proved infectious. It doesn’t hurt that she has an exceptional gift for selecting good material, and in recent years, she’s proven herself capable of writing some great songs herself.

When choosing the songs for this list, I had to whittle down the 356 songs of hers on my iPod to a mere 25. I don’t make the claim that these are Emmylou’s best songs by any objective standard. I’m not sure such a standard even exists. But these are my favorite songs, and since she’s one of my favorite artists, I’d call it a good fit for this feature, don’t you think?

 

#25
“Luxury Liner”

Luxury Liner (1977)

Emmylou’s not exactly known for her up-tempo romps, but the title track from her fourth album is a raucous one. “You think I’m lonesome?” she growls. “So do I, so do I.” She sings the hell out of it, but the song’s main reason for existence is letting the band cut loose, resulting in one of the best instrumental showcases of her catalog.

 

#24
“Do I Ever Cross Your Mind”

Trio II (1999)

Fans of Dolly Parton have often viewed “Do I Ever Cross Your Mind” as one of her biggest lost opportunities, a classic country song weighed down by a horribly tacky early eighties pop production. The brilliance of the song is still there, buried under the surface, but it finally gets to shine brightly with Emmylou singing the lead vocal on the second Trio project. Dolly provides a sweet harmony vocal that elevates the final third of the song.

#23
“Cheatin’ Is”

Blue Kentucky Girl (2004 Remastered Edition)

When Emmylou’s traditional country classic Blue Kentucky Girl was reissued with bonus tracks in 2004, it featured a real gem as a bonus track: her heartfelt reading of the minor Barbara Fairchild hit, “Cheatin’ Is.” It’s a matter-of-fact description of the mechanics of infidelity, with a sad concluding verse regarding the children who get hurt in the process: “Cheatin’ is a game that nobody wins and the ones who aren’t big enough to play, are the ones that lose.”

#22
“Here, There and Everywhere”

Elite Hotel (1975)

She isn’t the only female artist to cover a Beatles song beautifully – Dolly Parton and Rosanne Cash would go on to do the same with distinction. But it was Emmylou who did it first and did it best. Her cover of the McCartney Revolver classic is so eloquent that I’d suggest it was better than the original, if such a suggestion wasn’t musical heresy.

#21
“Magdalene Laundries”

A Tribute to Joni Mitchell (2007)

One of the great things about the digital age is that you can find out about performance you wouldn’t hear otherwise through a simple search. I honestly know very little about Joni Mitchell outside of “Both Sides Now” and couple of other hits. Harris’ superb reading of the horrors of a wayward girl sent to a nunnery “for the way men looked at me” makes me want to hear far more of the legendary singer’s work.

#20
“Ordinary Heart”

Happy, Texas (1999)

It’s a pure country song, simple and direct, and it has the acoustic arrangement you’d expect at first. But a cool post-Wrecking Ball rhythmic section soon joins in, resulting in a cool sound that doesn’t interfere with the song’s message.

#19
“Beneath Still Waters”

Blue Kentucky Girl (1979)

On her 1979 album, Harris set out to prove that she could create a solid traditional country album, and “Beneath Still Waters” is the crowning jewel of that project, proving that she was right. It’s a classic country ballad just waiting to be rediscovered.

#18
“Cup of Kindness”

Stumble into Grace (2003)

The idea here is that one could spend a lifetime seeking “the sacred and the divine”, yet miss the presence of God around them because it’s been in “the cup of kindness all the time.” God reveals Himself in our kindness and service to others, not in solitary revelations.

#17
“Boy From Tupelo”

Red Dirt Girl (2000)

This has one of my favorite lines ever in a country song: “You don’t love me, this I know. Don’t need a bible to tell me so.” Harris wrote herself a kiss-off anthem for the ages, curt but not bitter, showing resignation but not remorse. She’ll “be gone like the five-and-dime,” you can “just ask the boy from Tupelo. He’s the king and he oughta know.”

#16
“On the Radio”

White Shoes (1983)

I heard Emmylou’s straight ballad version of this Donna Summer song first. Suffice it to say that when I heard the Summer original later, I was startled by the sudden intrusion of disco beats. Emmylou said in an interview that she cried when she heard the playback of her version of this song, and was taken aback, as she usually doesn’t respond to her own music that way. It’s a powerful performance.

#15
“All My Tears”

Wrecking Ball (1995)

Many of my favorite Harris songs have a deep religious element. This is one of her most intense performances with that theme, featuring a chorus stripped of everything but the most base faith convictions: “It don’t matter where you bury me, I’ll be home and I’ll be free.”

#14
“My Songbird”

Quarter Moon in a Ten Cent Town (1978)

One of the highlights from my favorite Emmylou Harris album to date. She sings of the songbird inside her that wants its freedom, but she is keeping imprisoned. It’s a rich metaphor for all of the true convictions one holds inside, the dreams that never see light because our fears and doubts keep them imprisoned.

#13
“You Don’t Know Me”

Cowgirl’s Prayer (1993)

This song has long been canonized in the pantheon of great pop songs, despite its humble country origins. The reading here is achingly beautiful, refusing to gloss over the pain embedded in the lyric, but not going so far as to wallow in it.

#12.
“Leaving Louisiana in the Broad Daylight”

Quarter Moon in a Ten Cent Town (1978)

Avoid at all costs the muddy Oak Ridge Boys cover, which robs the song of all of its gritty charm. Indulge instead in the original recording of the Rodney Crowell composition, with touches of Cajun instrumentation highlighting a sharp vocal from Harris.

#11
“Lovin’ You Again”

Cowgirl’s Prayer (1993)

Something of a predecessor to “I May Hate Myself in the Morning”, with the woman having a much less active role in getting the ball rolling. She clearly hates herself well before the morning, because she knows she’s going to get hurt again and is cursing her lack of willpower: “Every time is the last time with you. It never gets no better, and it couldn’t get no worse.”

#10
“Where Will I Be”

Wrecking Ball (1995)

There’s a renewed urgency to this performance, which kicks off her landmark 1995 album Wrecking Ball. She’s wrestling here with all of her own demons, running through a lifetime of sins that she’s enjoying too much to interrupt (”I like the heat of your body laying under me”), but also desperately wondering what that will mean for her in the end: “Oh, where will I be when that trumpet sounds?”

#9
“Child of Mine”

‘Til Their Eyes Shine (1992)

A love song from parent to child that is completely devoid of cheesy sentiment or patronizing platitudes. The parent here is thankful for her cynicism being melted away by the optimism of her young child, and she has no desire to mold her child into a replica of herself. She just states her belief that “I know you will be honest, if you can’t always be kind” and notes that “You’re the one who taught me, you don’t have to look behind.”

#8
“I Don’t Have to Crawl”

Evangeline (1981)

Since hearing a snippet of this song on the Women of Country special way back in 1993, I’ve waited in vain for this to be reissued on a modern format. For now, I make due with an mp3 made from my scratchy vinyl copy of this album, and try to enjoy the Rodney Crowell and Rosanne Cash recordings of Crowell’s biting composition, arguably the best of his lesser-known works from that era.

#7
“The Boxer”

Roses in the Snow (1980)

I love everything about this bluegrass revamping of the Simon & Garfunkel classic, but it’s one of those pleasures that’s hard to articulate. It just sounds so damn good that I have a tendency to hit repeat every time it pops up on shuffle.

#6
“Red Dirt Girl”

Red Dirt Girl (2000)

This song resonates with me deeply, and it’s not just because I have a cousin in Alabama with five kids that I love very much. The parallels with her and the Lillian of this song end there. The way that dreams collide with reality, that bad choices can spin into a downward spiral. It’s a cautionary tale, and it speaks the truth: “One thing they don’t tell you about the blues when you got ‘em, you keep on falling ’cause there ain’t no bottom, there ain’t no end.”

#5
“Immigrant Eyes”

Songbird: Rare Tracks & Forgotten Gems (2007)

This song made me weep the first time that I heard it. Guy Clark wrote this tribute to his grandfather, who immigrated to this country as a young man, “starting with nothing and working hard all of his life.” My mother’s father came to America from Sweden when he was 14. I remember noticing two missing fingers on his hand and learning that he’d lost them in a factory. This is our history, the history of every American, somewhere in their family tree. Working with the children of immigrants myself, and seeing their struggles in learning a new language and way of life, seeing the sacrifices their parents are making upon their behalf, remind me of my grandfather, every word of which this song could be about. “Don’t take it for granted”, say grandfather’s immigrant eyes.

#4
“Boulder to Birmingham”

Pieces of the Sky (1975)

Her self-penned requiem for Gram Parsons is as haunting today as it must have been the day it first was released. The pain of being the one left behind is captured perfectly: “You’ve really got me this time, and the hardest part is knowing I’ll survive.”

#3
“Prayer in Open D”

Cowgirl’s Prayer (1993)

Because I’m both a visible practitioner of my faith and a vocal music fan, I’m often asked if I like Contemporary Christian music. My usual response is this: I like music about being Christian, but I don’t care for Contemporary Christian music. For me, the music about God that resonates with me the most deals with the struggle to believe, not with the celebration of belief itself. That simultaneous near-hopelessness and deeply felt longing is perfectly captured in “Prayer in Open D.” To stand in the valley where you’ve been for so long, but still hold on to the idea that you just might find salvation, that’s faith.

#2
“Lost Unto This World”

Stumble into Grace (2003)

To tackle in one song all of the horrific injustices that women endure around the world solely because of their gender is no small task. It’s pulled off with as much delicacy as the subject matter can allow, but it’s still a very intense song, beyond comparison to anything I’ve ever heard before in any genre of music. She speaks in the voice of the countless women who have died in vain in parts of the world that we don’t give a second thought to, and asks: “Can I get no witness? This unholy tale to tell. Was God the only one there watching and weeping as I fell?”

#1
“Easy From Now On”

Quarter Moon in a Ten Cent Town (1978)

Whenever I’m asked my favorite song, I reflexively answer: “Easy From Now On.” For a long time, it was hard for me to get a handle on just why it is, when there are so many other songs by so many different artists that I love.

I think it comes down to the philosophy embedded within the song. Yes, you can make mistakes and make some bad choices with good intentions, but you can also choose to make the changes you need to make to better yourself. If you’re on “a one-way street”, you have the option of “getting off where the crossroads meet.”

Life may never be “easy from now on” in a pure sense. Obstacles will always arise that you need to deal with, so it will never be smooth sailing. But coming to the realization that you can walk away when you need to, and that the power lies in you to do so, really does make life easier, regardless of how hard it may get from time to time. To no person, place or thing are you fully bound; you can always leave behind who or what you need to, if that’s what you need to do.

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11 Comments

Category: Favorite Songs by Favorite Artists

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  1. Mike M.No Gravatar says:

    I really like this feature. It got me thinking about some of my favorite singers’ top 25′s. I would really like to see someone do a Garth Brooks top 25. I’m working on mine right now but it’s so hard to choose!

  2. LeeannNo Gravatar says:

    I”m a fan of Garth Brooks, so he would fit in the category of “favorite artists” for me. So, you never know, you could get your wish…

  3. KevinNo Gravatar says:

    Methinks that we won’t only be alternating weeks, but genders too! I put up a page for just this feature so people can always find them easily.

  4. Paul W DennisNo Gravatar says:

    Emmylou is not one of my favorite soloists, although I think she is the greatest harmony and background singer in the world. I have many of her albums but the only two I listen to with regularity are ROSES IN THE SNOW and AT THE RYMAN, both superlative efforts.

    1. “That Loving You Feeling” w/ Roy Orbison
    2. “Those Memories of You” w. Dolly Parton & Linda Ronstadt
    3. “If I Could Only Win Your Love” – this is the song that brought her onto my radar
    4. “The Boxer”
    5. “Smoke Along The Track” – the original recdording was the B-side of Stonewall Jackson’s monster hit “Waterloo”. Emmylou’s version is nearly as good
    6. “Wayfaring Stranger” – terrific take oin an old classic
    7. “If I Needed You” w/ Don Williams
    8. “I’ll Go Steppin’ Too”
    9. “I’m Movin’ On” – a nice cover of the biggest hit in Country Music history (according to Billboard)
    10T “Making Believe”
    10T “Beneath Still Waters” – the only version to rival the Osborne Brother’s original version – not a chart hit for Sonny & Bob, but bluegrass rarely charted in the 60s and 70s unless associated with a movie or TV show

  5. Paul W DennisNo Gravatar says:

    As an aside, I don’t think that you can fairly call Emmylou’s induction “long overdue” although that term could easily be said of the inductions of Tom T Hall and the Statler Brothers. Emmylou has been eligible for induction for less than ten years

    IF you really want “long overdue”, I can make a really good case that Pop Stoneman should have been in the first or second class of inductees back in 1964 or 1965. Not only did Pop have the first million selling country disk back in 1924, but it was he who convinced Raph Peer to bring mobile recording equipment down to Bristol where Peer “discovered ” and recorded Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family.

  6. KevinNo Gravatar says:

    I think I can call it long overdue. Sure I can. Especially when the category she’s in (1975-present) inducted three eighties stars first, one of which was arguably a nineties star who happened to record in the eighties first. I think she should’ve been in there years ago, so in my view, it’s long overdue. Your disagreement with me doesn’t make my assessment unfair. It’s just a difference of opinion.

  7. LeeannNo Gravatar says:

    As much as I love Vince, and you all know I do, I was surprised that he got into the HOF before Emmylou. Her contribution to the genre is undeniable. Who doesn’t know that name? Who doesn’t know that voice? What true country singer doesn’t revere her?We can split hairs, but I was pretty surprised to see anyone argue anything but Emmylou’s worthiness to be in the HOF. Sure, perhaps Pop Stoneman also deserves it, but I don’t think this supercedes Emmylou’s “long over due” induction.

  8. Paul W DennisNo Gravatar says:

    Remember Kevin, it’s only in the last few years that the CMHOF has elected multiple new members so there has been much much catching up to do and still some that needs to be done. In the years where only one new member was inducted, sometimes a non-singer was inducted thus lengthening the backlog (Rod Brassfield or the Duke of Paducah anyone ? I do agree that Minnie Pearl and Homer & Jethro deserved induction)

    I absolutely think Emmylou is HOF-worthy and ,yes, I would have put her in before Vince Gill but I would not have enshrined her before Alabama or George Strait. If you check either this site or The 9513 I have had her NEAR the top of the list due for enshrinement. I refuse, however, to shed any tears for Emmylou waiting at most 8 years when even more worthy entrants waited 15,20 or more years, Now that the HOF is inducting three per year this sort of problem should eventually disappear.

    I am on a forum that discusses Baseball’s immortals and the discussion rolls around to the upper tier of the Hall of Fame and other mere immortals. Emmylou is not upper tier – she isn’t/wasn’t nearly as important as Webb Pierce and he had to wait until ten years after his death to get inducted .

    Anyway – she’s in and congratulations to her, she’s a worthy selection

  9. LeeannNo Gravatar says:

    In the past, I didn’t get into Emmylou because, as Kevin said, her voice is an acquired taste. Well, it seems that I’ve recently acquired the taste in a big way! I can’t get enough.

    I heard an interview where Vince Gill said that the first time he heard Emmylou sing “Bluebird Wine”, he thought she was Dolly Parton and that Dolly just changed her name for the song. He even convinced his friends that she was Dolly. But then he found “Pieces of the Sky” and realized that there really was someone named Emmylou. When I hear her early stuff, she really does sound like Dolly to the untrained ear.:) By the way, Vince’s “Some Things Never Get Old”, from his These Days boxset, references Emmylou’s Bluebird Wine” and she lends great background vocals to a great song.

    It took me long enough to give Emmylou a fair try, but I’m extremely glad that I finally have.

  10. MichaelNo Gravatar says:

    Cowgirl’s Prayer was the first CD of Emmylou’s that I bought when I was 13. I could listen to it from start to finish. My favorite track: “Crescent City”. Also enjoyed “High Powered Love” and “Jerusalem Tomorrow” as well.
    Emmylou is a master interpreter and I think her cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “Tougher Than the Rest” stands as one of her finest moments. Also notworthy are “Lodi”, “Amarillo” and “Queen of the Silver Dollar”.
    I also really liked Terri Clark’s take on Carlene Carter’s “Easy From Now On.”

  11. MotownMikeNo Gravatar says:

    This is truly a great list not because I agree with everyone of Kevin’s choices rather because it spotlights a special talent who has a library full of great music. Great music that is defined in all of its facets: lyrics, vocals, preference, instrumentation. There are artists I enjoy more than EmmyLou but few that evoke emotion from me like her songs can do! And that to me, alongside the vast library of plain good music, is what makes her so special.

    I’d add Making Believe, Tennessee Rose, Blue Kentucky Girl and Gulf Coast Highway to my personal list.

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