Struggling to the Surface


Her voice has the tensile strength of a tuning fork, she can sing louder and softer than many who have come before and after her, and she’s the Queen of Remorse. She pushed herself away from duets with country greats and toward interpretations of Jimi Hendrix with 1995’s Wrecking Ball, a sobfest lamenting the limelight, motherless children (twice), and the usual love and death (six times). It won her her eighth Grammy, but she wanted more. Beneath her willowy sadness and deferential persona, Emmylou Harris was a self-confessed “road dog,” hard worker, and exacting boss, who, disappointed by sales of Wrecking Ball, let go of her manager, her label, and her producer, to finally come out with her own material on her new Red Dirt Girl.

Harris’s reputation as a self-effacing and generous star seems unsullied by ego or groveling, but Red Dirt Girl reveals both. And that’s a compliment: She’s long been shrouded by—and profited from—her industry mantle as country’s prettiest widow. Red Dirt Girl‘s trick is to adorn Harris’s songs with handsome flourishes, such as Bruce Springsteen’s falsetto harmony on “Tragedy,” an all-out-for-love song that makes you count your blessings. Then there are the strategic and grandiose allusions to great men: In “Boy From Tupelo” she equates a boyfriend’s departure with the untimely death of the most important white boy in rock-and-roll history; in “Michelangelo” she dreams of the artist crying into her silver bandanna. (Me, I’d settle for a wink from David.) No wonder: Harris’s career took off when an up-and-coming man died stupidly of a drug overdose. She lionizes her father in “Bang the Drum Slowly,” and though her eulogy lacks the stunned disbelief of Loudon Wainwright’s “Sometimes I Forget,” it shares a point of view with Iris DeMent’s “No Time to Cry”: Both women were too busy to grieve properly. But there’s one important difference. DeMent questions a life that takes her away from her family, and Harris doesn’t. Then there’s the album’s references to another great man, the god of powerful silences; in concert she lauded her earthly influences, guitarist Buddy Miller and his born-again wife, Julie, as her “religion.” Somehow I can’t help but feel they love her too, all the way to the bank.

Red Dirt Girl is relatively carnal for an Emmylou Harris record. Gravelly drums and a little distortion—downright muddy, in fact—make a little rock mess over the pure simplicity of guitar and piano, to create an underwater effect. The production value serves as an apt metaphor for an artist struggling to the surface to be heard. It’s most effective on “I Don’t Want to Talk About It,” where Harris crawls back to a lover who’s “poison.” But when we get to the point where Lucinda Williams would have changed the locks, Emmylou only blames herself: “God knows why you don’t want me/No one would do the things I do.” I’ve researched this, and aside from finding out that she once spent two hours buying lipstick, I have nothing incriminating to report. Freedom is a bitch, and if Harris still seems trapped it’s because she doesn’t quite trust herself to be liberated. That may help explain why Lillian of the title track seems at once so forgotten and familiar. Many of Harris’s women see no way out; it’s easy to romanticize this protagonist by inventing her suicide, harder to look at the life of a victimized woman and figure out her choices if she wants to survive.

Since her first singing-contest victory in rural Virginia, where she observed that she “was the only girl entered who didn’t look like Dolly Parton . . . but the only one who sang a Dolly Parton song,” Harris has embodied respect for tradition. But she’s shown that she can do more than revere it. Gram Parsons fused country and rock in ways that younger artists are still reinventing, as last year’s excellent tribute, Return of the Grievous Angel (which Harris produced), attests. Despite the faithful reading she gives Dolly’s “To Daddy,” collected on her three-CD boxed set Portraits, the song’s acid wit—an exquisitely taciturn housewife holds her tongue until she has the last word in the final stanza—still rests comfortably with Parton’s original. If on Red Dirt Girl time has become “a brutal but a careless thief,” maybe Harris is ready to look at what other basics, such as her beauty and talent, have stolen: her anger, for instance. Or was it just me who got pissed off in September when the Times‘ magazine profiler condescendingly cataloged Harris’s favorite authors (gee! A country singer who can read!) and needed to know, 30 years after the fact, if Harris and Parsons had been lovers?

I always kind of liked Harris’s first self-penned album (with Paul Kennerly), The Ballad of Sally Rose, with its vaguely feminist, fictional/autobiographical conceit. Here was someone who could reinvent an old American myth as a love letter to the record industry, and play the lead herself: Dakota Plains Native American Girl carries torch for guitar player who dies. Harris invented Sally’s more politically correct past to obscure her own army brat-homecoming queen beginnings outside Washington, D.C. But maybe the real and fictional uprooted childhoods were more alike than they seemed. Harris bemoans her own rootlessness, not only in song but seemingly in life. A mother of two, veteran of three marriages, she’s been on food stamps and she’s been a country music queen. She’s also blown more years on the road than she probably feels like remembering. But that’s the gig when you become your own subject, isn’t it?