Emmylou Harris is currently enjoying the most commercially successful period of her stellar 40-odd year career. That in itself sounds strange knowing what we know about the business today, and Harris having established herself as one of country music’s queens back in the mid-to-late ‘70s. But somehow, since her resurgence on the back of 1995’s classic Wrecking Ball, each release has managed to be just as intriguing. Her constant touring has kept her in the public eye and all of this hard work has paid off, as Harris’ albums now chart very well, and all since 2000’s Red Dirt Girl have recouped, making Harris better off now than ever before.
I say she thoroughly deserves all the fame and fortune that comes her way, and the fact that Harris is now considered a national treasure of sorts make me, a long-time fan, very pleased. Harris has an uncanny ability to write about things that many would deem too personal or too somber; both of these traits are again evident (more so than ever) on Hard Bargain which happens to be Emmylou’s 26th studio album. It is superbly played and produced by Jay Joyce, Giles Reaves, and Harris, all of which took place over just four weeks in August of last year.
Harris has written the entire album (including three songs with Will Jennings) and she has also added one contribution from Joyce (the sweet closer “Cross Yourself”) as well as covering Ron Nesmith’s “Hard Bargain,” which obviously inspired the album title. Emmylou opens the record covering old ground with yet another ode to her late mentor and dear friend, Gram Parsons.
Harris has spoken of regretting not engaging in an affair with Parsons simply because she loved him so, and through her work she continues to keep that flame burning (“But I still think about you, wonder where you are / Can you see me from someplace up there among the stars.”) The song is called “The Road” and essentially tells the story of Harris falling under Gram’s spell, following the early days of her career after he took the young singer under his wing and out on the road. It’s one of Harris’ finest songs ever.
Another tribute to another late mentor is “Darlin’ Kate,” which Harris penned for Kate McCariggle who lost her battle with cancer in 2010. Kate and sister Anne became great pals of Harris as the three would often collaborate on each other’s projects and occasionally gig together. There are also some lighter moments to be found here, like the carefree “Big Black Dog.” This is a deep and meaningful body of work, and it seems the aforementioned subjects have driven the mood of the rest of the material here. Even a soft, simple song, “Lonely,” tells of a young lady who has nothing going for her and is lost in her own solitude but still holds out for that one somebody to rescue her from it.
“My Name Is Emmett Till” is Emmylou’s take on the horrible killing of the young lad back in 1955 after the black 14-year-old Till had apparently flirted with a white woman. The song is graphic and moving, and Harris’ somber delivery is exactly what such a song requires; it’s not easy listening but is stunning just the same. “New Orleans” gives the album a touch of rock, and I can’t emphasize enough how grateful this listener is for hearing it, a fine song for the city still recovering from Katrina’s devastation. “Six White Cadillacs” has an easy groove, and although the meaning of the song is completely open to interpretation, it’s one of the most enjoyable songs on the record.
Overall, Hard Bargain is not an easy album to get into, and the casual fan (or first time curio) may indeed find it inaccessible all together because of its depressing content. But for me, the saving grace is Emmylou Harris herself, who offers these songs to us in the most dignified and heartfelt way, and that is all I needed to reassure me that this is something that Harris just had to get off her chest. Hopefully next time around, we can have some fun again.