Emmylou Harris had nowhere to hide and nowhere to go except the other side of desire and went looking for the water from a deeper well with the turbulent rhythms of this country reinvention. She had enjoyed an incomparable career in the traditional Nashville country idiom with eighteen studio albums (Gliding Bird in 1969, Pieces of the Sky and Elite Hotel in 1975, Luxury Liner in 1977, Quarter Moon in a Ten Cent Town in 1978, Light of the Stable - The Christmas Album and Blue Kentucky Girl in 1979, Roses in the Snow in 1980, Evangeline and Cimarron in 1981, White Shoes in 1983, The Ballad of Sally Rose in 1985, Thirteen in 1986, Trio with Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt in 1987, Angel Band in 1987, Bluebird in 1989, Brand New Dance in 1990, and Cowgirl's Prayer in 1994), two live releases (Last Date in 1982 and At the Ryman in 1992 with the Nash Ramblers), and guest appearances and collaborations on dozens of albums (including Will the Circle Be Unbroken with The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band in 1972; 'GP' with Gram Parsons in 1973; Feats Don't Fail Me Now with Little Feat, 'Grievous Angel' with Gram Parsons, and Heart Like a Wheel with Linda Ronstadt in 1974; Home Plate with Bonnie Raitt, Prisoner in Disguise with Linda Ronstadt, and Two Lane Highway with Pure Prairie League in 1975; All I Can Do with Dolly Parton, Desire with Bob Dylan, Mike Auldridge with Mike Auldridge, Sleepless Nights with The Flying Burrito Brothers, Starland Vocal Band with Starland Vocal Band, and Texas Cookin' with Guy Clark in 1976; Ain't Living Long Like This with Rodney Crowell, American Stars 'N Bars with Neil Young, and Long Time Gone with John Starling in 1977; Hiding with Albert Lee, Right or Wrong with Rosanne Cash, and Sweet Temptation with Ricky Skaggs in 1979; Honeysuckle Rose with Willie Nelson in 1980; Seven Year Ache with Rosanne Cash and The Innocent Age with Dan Fogelberg in 1981; Heartland with The Judds, Higher Ground with Tammy Wynette, and Pontiac with Lyle Lovett; Don't Close Your Eyes with Keith Whitley and Lucinda Williams with Lucinda Williams in 1988; Lying to the Moon with Matraca Berg in 1990; Another Country with The Chieftains, Hearts in Armor with Trisha Yearwood, Infamous Angel with Iris DeMent, and Joshua Judges Ruth with Lyle Lovett in 1992 ; Other Voices, Other Rooms with Nanci Griffith in 1993; Flyer with Nanci Griffith in 1994; and Train a Comin' with Steve Earle in 1995); but she had seemed to reach a plateau with sales.
Harris reveals: "I will say that there were some good people at the company [Elektra] who were disappointed with the reaction to Cowgirl's Prayer. They came to me and said, 'Listen, we've done our best, we don't know what to do. Who would you like to work with?' I had become a huge fan of Daniel's first solo record and the record Oh Mercy that he'd done with Bob Dylan. Phone calls were made, and the next thing I knew, I was having a meeting with Daniel, and we just decided to make a record. Once again, it's that thing of low or no expectations and being given a free rein. I mean, I've always had that anyway, and there's a certain fearlessness to Daniel's work. The sounds and turbulent rhythms that he brought to these songs really inspired me."
The sessions in New Orleans featured Emmylou Harris on vocals, acoustic guitar, and harmony vocals; Daniel Lanois on mandolin, electric guitar, acoustic guitar, bass, dulcimer, duet vocals, chant vocals, percussion, and bass pedals; Malcolm Burn on piano, tambourine, vibes, organ, synthesizer, keyboards, slide guitar, bass, drums, and harmony vocals; Larry Mullen, Jr. on drums, cymbal, and hand drum; Tony Hall on percussion, bass, and stick drum; Daryl Johnson on high harmony vocals, tom tom, drum kit bass pedals, backing vocals, harmonic bass, and harmony vocals; with Brian Blade adding drums and Indian hand drum; Steve Earle adding acoustic guitar; Sam O'Sullivan adding roto wheel; Neil Young adding harmony vocals and harmonica; Kufaru Mouton adding extro percussion; Lucinda Williams adding acoustic guitar; Richard Bennett adding tremolo guitar; and Anna McGarrigle and Kate McGarrigle adding harmony vocals.
Harris remembers: "It wasn't a huge band. It was Larry Mullen, Tony Hall, Daniel, Malcolm [Burn], and myself. People think the more you put on a record, the more exciting and emotional it's going to be. Sometimes I think that works, but for me, what they did leaves more room for vocal interpretation, and what I was hearing was so inspiring that I think it raised the bar for me...I think it was a certain time in my life. My father had died the year before. A few years earlier I had a divorce, I was living alone, except my mother had come to live with me. I was just going through a lot of changes. I've always lived through music and expressed myself through music. I chose "All My Tears" because I had sung on Julie Miller's version of that song, so I was aware of it. "Orphan Girl," I loved. I had met Gillian Welch. And I had heard Kate and Anna perform "Goin' Back to Harlan" a few years earlier, and just absolutely loved the way they did that song. It evoked something in me. At our first meeting, Dan gave me a huge book of Dylan songs. Malcolm suggested "Every Grain of Sand" and he also brought Neil Young's "Wrecking Ball." ... For me, Wrecking Ball was a watershed, if that's the right word. Before that, I felt, especially at the record company, like I'd done my bit. I'm not really on the radio, but I still had my loyal fans, I was still able to make a living touring. But it had gotten to a point where the record I made just before it, Cowgirl's Prayer in 1993, we put a lot of energy into it, and I was trying to be a good Girl Scout and give radio something they could play without compromising myself. Basically I was told, 'You're just not invited to this party anymore'."
'Wrecking Ball' only reached ninety-six in the US, forty-six in the UK, thirty in Norway, and twenty-seven in Sweden. Harris says: "I think when Wrecking Ball came out, there was a bit of confusion. I started my career saying that I wanted to be considered a country artist. I felt that intense connection with Gram, and all the music he turned me on to-- George Jones and all that great body of country music that I dismissed early on when I first got into music. I wanted to make up for it by embracing it and coming up with my own brand. But embracing it in a way that showed my respect. I was like a convert, only instead of converting to a religion I was converted to country music. But then, as it became sort of infected with a kind of virus of mediocrity, I didn't really have anything to do with it anymore. I wasn't being played on the radio. It was the kind of thing where-- do you try and distance yourself, or do you say "if you want to call me a country artist then Wrecking Ball is a country record?" Just damn the torpedoes [laughs]. In the long run, when people look at my career, I hope they see that this can be country, because that is where she came from, that is where the beginning was. It's like trying to change the place you were born. It's always going to be a part of you. But there is some confusion now. I think genres are actually disappearing, more and more. Is there really rhythm & blues, is there really country music? More and more young artists are dipping into the pool of all these various forms of music and coming up with something that's totally new themselves. Fortunately, we'll always have the genre in their pure form, to go back to and to learn from and to steal from. To add to our stew."
"Sweet Old World"
Sweet Old World from Craig Culver on Vimeo.
"Orphan Girl" / "Blackhawk"
"Where Will I Be?" [with Daniel Lanois] (Daniel Lanois) – 4:15
"Goodbye" (Steve Earle) – 4:53
"All My Tears" (Julie Miller) – 3:42
"Wrecking Ball" (Neil Young) – 4:49
"Goin' Back to Harlan" (Anna McGarrigle) – 4:51
"Deeper Well" (David Olney, Lanois, Emmylou Harris) – 4:19
"Every Grain of Sand" (Bob Dylan) – 3:56
"Sweet Old World" (Lucinda Williams) – 5:06
"May This Be Love" [with Daniel Lanois] (Jimi Hendrix) – 4:45
"Orphan Girl" (Gillian Welch) – 3:15
"Blackhawk" (Daniel Lanois) – 4:28
"Waltz Across Texas Tonight" (Rodney Crowell, Emmylou Harris) – 4:46