Emmylou Harris - 1980s portrait Hi there... This is the second page of an annotated discography of Emmylou Harris, one of my enduring country music idols. This page covers her work from 1980 onwards... For a glimpse at her classic early work in the 1970s, check out the first page of this discography.

Known primarily as a song stylist and interpreter of other people's work, Emmylou has gradually emerged as a songwriter herself. Her musical style has changed, as well, becoming more ornate and pop-oriented, to the delight of some, and the dismay of others. Regardless of where you stand on the aesthetics of Emmylou, her role as a major influence on both the alt-country and neo-traditionalist scenes is undeniable and profound.

Discography: 1980-Present

Emmylou Harris "Roses In The Snow" (Warner, 1980)
Emmylou started the '80s with a bang, on this big, beautiful all-bluegrass album, featuring invaluable assistance from David Grisman Quintet alumnus Tony Rice on guitar, along with Jerry Douglas on dobro and Bryan Bower's soulful autoharp strumming. The two big radio hits -- "Wayfaring Stranger" and Paul Simon's "The Boxer" -- are the least of this album's charms. What's really great are the bouncy title track, a perky cover of "I'll Go Stepping Too," a plaintive version of the Louvin Brothers "You're Learning" and her spooky gospel duets with Willie Nelson ("Green Pastures") and Ricky Skaggs ("The Darkest Hour"). Right after this album came out, Skaggs started his own solo career as a Top Forty country traditionalist, with his contributions here as a sweet, welcome glimpse of things to come. From start to finish, this is a very fun, very listenable album... Highly recommended! (The 2002 re-release features a couple of non-bluegrass bonus tracks -- a fine cover of a Hank Williams tune, with Julie Miller singing harmony, and a Celtic-flavored folk tune written by Brian Ahearn's sister Nancy.)

Emmylou Harris "Evangeline" (Warner, 1981) (LP)
To be honest, this is about where I started to fuzz out on Emmylou's career. Part of it is that I was rediscovering punk (which I stopped listening to in '79...) and part of it is just the album itself: this was one of her last collaborations with hubby Brian Ahern, and the results are, well... mixed. Some songs are disasterous, such as her rockin' version of "Bad Moon Rising," a leaden version of Paul Seibel's "Spanish Johnny" (try David Bromberg's version instead...) and the synthy, self-important take on Rodney Crowell's "I Don't Have To Crawl..." A few other tracks work better. Oddly enough, I like the overwrought James Taylor tune, "Millworker," on the B-side, and the super-sweet Trio outing on "Mr. Sandman" is a real delight. Otherwise, it's a little bit of a strain to appreciate this one.

Emmylou Harris "Cimarron" (Warner, 1981/Eminent, 2000)
(Produced by Brian Ahern)

This follows along in more or less the same path as Evangeline, but it's much more solid, and without the low points that marked that album. High points here include the rock-oriented radio hit, "Born To Run," and "If You Needed Me," her super-sweet duet with Don Williams, and still one of my favorite Emmylou recordings. Recently the album has been re-mastered and re-released on independent label, Eminent, with an added track that was a B-side single. Sounds pretty nice!

Emmylou Harris "Last Date" (Warner/Rhino Encore, 1982/2008)
(Produced by Brian Ahern)

Emmylou's first live album, showcasing a late edition of her famed Hot Band. This is a robust, boisterous live set, which features a lot of upbeat, semi-rowdy rockin' material (including Emmylou taking the lead on a version of the classic instrumental, "Buckaroo"...) Sometimes, especially on the weepers, her vocals get a little milky, but it's definitely a nice snapshot of Emmylou in her early prime, and fans'll be pleased to see this album back in print again (it's one of her records that seems to slip through the cracks from time to time.) More than anything else, this album conveys her ongoing enthusiasm and love for the music. Like the 2000 CD reissue, this includes two extra tracks, the unreasonably gorgeous "Another Pot Of Tea," and "Maybe Tonight," a mid-tempo, loping, (wishin' for) love song. From the original album, her cover of the Everly Brothers' "So Sad" and Neil Young's "Long May You Run" are highlights...

Emmylou Harris "White Shoes" (Warner, 1983)
Despite several rock-oriented misfires (a cover of Donna Summer's "On The Radio" is the worst of them...) this is a pretty solid album. Hardcore Emmylou fans, at least, should give it a whirl.

Emmylou Harris "The Ballad Of Sally Rose" (Warner, 1985)
Emmylou's first big song cycle/concept album. It's more or less on a par with The Red Headed Stranger... same relative durability of the individual songs, same pseudo-autobiographical archetypes, same pseudo-literary pretensions. It's not bad, but it also isn't very catchy.

Emmylou Harris "Thirteen" (Warner, 1986)
(Produced by Paul Kennerley)

Let's count... One, two, three, four, five... Yup, this really is her thirteenth album (if you exclude 1969's Gliding Bird, which Harris apparently disowns...) This is a root-oriented affair, produced again by Paul Kennerley, and featuring plenty of well-known Emmylou alums, such as Barry Tashian and super-picker Frank Reckard. John Anderson guest duets on a so-so version of the old George Jones weeper, "Just Someone I Used To Know," and there are plenty of other oldies to satisfy fans of the old sound. This isn't her most fab record, but it's pretty good.

Emmylou Harris "Angel Band" (Warner, 1987)
Beautiful! Building on the sweet bluegrass gospel sound she brought to 1980's Roses In The Snow, Emmylou raises the bar even higher with this lovely set of harmony vocal tunes. The production is a little on the lush side, but the music is heavenly. This is definitely one of the essential Emmylou albums of the '80s.

Emmylou Harris/Dolly Parton/Linda Ronstadt "Trio" (Warner, 1987)
Dolly, Linda and Emmylou had been palling around with each other for years before they made this album, singing backup for one another on various albums throughout the '70s, and horsing around in the studio for a while. Here they set out to formalize the arrangement, and the result sure was nice. Yeah, in the aggregate I guess it is a bit syrupy, but in a sense that's kind of the point. When they hit their mark, though, it's pretty darn nice.

Emmylou Harris "Bluebird" (Reprise, 1989)
(Produced by Richard Bennett & Emmylou Harris)

Emmylou's producer on this disc is Richard Bennett, and along with Paul Kennerly (who plays guitar on a few tunes...) he seems to add a pretty rock'n'roll flavor to most of the proceedings. Kind of an interim band, too, with folks like Barry Tashian and Kieran Kane pitching in, as well as guest performers such as Kate McGarrigle and Bonnie Raitt (who plays slide guitar on "Icy Blue Heart"). Overall, I found this album a bit slick and dreary, although I enjoyed the sweet cover version of Johnny Cash's "I Still Miss Someone." Also noteworthy are not one, but two(!) Emmylou originals... (I didn't particularly like either tune, but any time Emmylou writes a song, it's a special occasion! Too rock'n'roll for me, but others may like this album just fine.

Emmylou Harris/Various Artists "Duets" (Warner, 1988)
There tracks are drawn from various albums and singles, as well as guest appearances on other people's records. The reason I have a copy at home is because it contains that gorgeous duet with Don Williams ("If I Needed You")... a wonderfully sappy, sentimental love song which was also a hit single when it came out in the early '80s.

Emmylou Harris "Brand New Dance" (Reprise, 1990)
There's a weird tension between the elements of this album -- there are the pleasant, reasonably straight-ahead country numbers, such as "Wheels Of Love" and Emmylou's cover of the Robin and Linda Williams tune, "Death Of Hank Williams"... Then there's a brace of overproduced, synth-poppish tunes, ranging from an okay Springsteen song to some real klunkers like Marshall Chapman's "Better Off Without You", the Kostas tune, "In His World", and the slurpy Irish-isms on the title track. Worth noting, though, are the various guest artists, who include Iris DeMent, Kieran Kane, and the ever-fab Melba Montgomery, who sings harmony on one track. Overall, in retrospect, this would seem to be Emmylou moving toward the hi-tech mixes of Wrecking Ball and Red Dirt Girl, but still not having found the right producers.

Emmylou Harris "At The Ryman" (Reprise, 1992)
A great live acoustic album, mainly in a traditionalist mode. Recorded in the reconstituted version of the old Opry Hall, this features a typically kickass Emmylou band (the Nash Ramblers) picking and plunking their way through a slew of old favorites. Things really get fun when she drags the grand old man of acoustic string music, Bill Monroe, up onstage for a few words and a little fancy picking. Recommended!

Emmylou Harris "Cowgirl's Prayer" (Asylum, 1993)
Of Emmylou's later, more ornate albums, this one has a nice combination of simplicity and searching depth, though less of an obvious interest in catchy melodic hooks. Her cover version of the Lucinda Williams song, "Crescent City," isn't as bouncy as the original, but shows the high regard that Emmylou held for Williams as a songwriter. The album briefly goes south for a leaden version of David Olney's "Jerusalem Tomorrow", which is one of those pretentiously overblown "working man" sagas that folkie types sometimes indulge in... I'm sure it didn't work when Olney sang it either, but Emmylou trying to affect a tough-guy persona simply enters into the realm of the absurd. Having gone overboard with that one, she strays a bit musically on the next couple of numbers, though it comes back together by the end of the album, a Leonard Cohen song that gives the record its title...

Emmylou Harris "Wrecking Ball" (Asylum, 1995)
(Produced by Daniel Lanois)

This album was a major turning point for Emmylou, where she completely revamped her musical direction, stepping into a sleek new sound, a glossy, languid, densely layered production mix (sculpted by Daniel Lanois), which set old fans on their ears and and brought thousands of new fans into her fold... I can't say, really, that I care much for the new approach. Yeah, yeah, I know: who are we old-time fans to bitch and moan when our idols want to stretch out artistically and do something different for a change? But the style is just a bit too much for me. I think it's icky. The worst part is that it was a huge commercial success, and has helped shift Emmylou towards making this her "sound," a style to be replicated on many albums to follow Sigh. Oh, well. I guess I'm happy for her success, but I didn't keep my copy.

Emmylou Harris "Spyboy" (Eminent, 1998)
(Produced by Buddy Miller & Emmylou Harris)

This sleek concert album highlights the talents of Emmylou's compactly arranged, four-piece late-'90s band, Spyboy, anchored by roots guitarist Buddy Miller. Emmylou runs through a bunch of her old crowd-pleasers and a few new tunes. For the most part, though, I find this disc to be a bit cluttered and too rock-oriented. The snare drums are all over the place; too busy sounding and too prominent for my tastes. There are some moments of grace, though, on tunes like "Boulder To Birmingham," for example, but she's definitely had more subtle albums. A nice to chance to hear what her band sounded like on the road, though...

Emmylou Harris/Dolly Parton/Linda Ronstadt "Trio II" (Asylum, 1999)
(Produced by George Massenburg)

The rootsy feel of the first Trio album is subsumed to the sugary side of their musicmaking... Even though the formula is basically the same -- down-to-midtempo ballds with an acoustic backing and fine, three-part harmonies -- the magic doesn't seem the same. I wouldn't say they're coasting, exactly -- everyone seems to have their heart in it -- but they do seem lost n the technical craftsmanlike aspects of the project, neglecting that subtle roughness that makes good country music sound so great. It's an easy trap to fall into, considering how sweet these gals sound together, but it still makes for an overly bland album... Kind of a snoozer, really.

Emmylou Harris & Linda Ronstadt "Western Wall: The Tucson Sessions" (Asylum, 1999)
(Produced by Glyn Johns)

Or, The Wrecking Ball, part two. Sigh.

Emmylou Harris "Red Dirt Girl" (Nonesuch, 2000)
(Produced by Malcolm Burn)

Grieving and redemption echo throughout this album, a shimmeringly dense, unsettling meditation on the sadness that Emmylou Harris sees hovering above us all. Red Dirt Girl marks Emmylou's first full debut as a songwriter; all but one of these tracks were written by Harris herself, which is reason enough for fans to sit up and take notice. I know its funny for someone like myself, who loathed the Wrecking Ball album and its like-minded followups to enjoy a record like this, but what can I say? Emmylou really seems in top form on this one, and it works for me. Until now she's has been primarily known as a vocal stylist and interpreter of other people's work, especially '70s songwriter pals such as Rodney Crowell and Guy Clark. Clark puts in an appearance as co-author of "Bang The Drum Slowly", one of the many mournful reflections on death and loss that make up this album. Other guests include adult-pop icons such as Dave Matthews and Bruce Springsteen, neo-folkie Patty Griffin and Jill Cunniff, of Luscious Jackson fame. Guitarist Malcolm Burn produces and arranges the album, weaving a spectral feel into Emmylou's evocative lyrics, similar to the glossy tapestries of 1995's Wrecking Ball, which was produced by Daniel Lanois. It's interesting that Emmylou -- who built her career around picking simple, beautiful country love songs and infusing them with emotional power through her voice alone -- has come to a point in life where her own artistic vision is so profoundly spiritual and complex that it can only be accomodated with muted, quiet reserve. Her conversational vocal style and haunting lyrics underlie an artistic maturation and a journey into religious mystery which may be as surprising and challenging for her listeners as they were for Harris herself.

Emmylou Harris "Stumble Into Grace" (Nonesuch, 2003)
(Produced by Malcolm Burn)

As the title implies, this album concerns itself with the contemporary quest for some sort of spiritual life, some sort of backhanded redemption or sideways salvation, which seems to be the only sort of solace Emmylou sees coming out of our complicated, crass modern life. This disc is notable for Emmylou's full emergence as a songwriter, rather than a stylist -- all but one of the songs on here were written or co-written by Ms. Harris herself, and the album has a thematic cohesion that sets it apart from her usual, run-of-the-mill fabulous country records. Also notable are the contributions of her numerous collaborators and cowriters, including Kate & Anna McGarrigle, Daniel Lanois, Jill Cunniff (of Luscious Jackson) and album producer Malcolm Burn... Kate & Anna really make this disc noteworthy -- their fans will be tickled pink to see their input all over this album -- and while I personally don't care much for the gooey "adult pop" production style that Emmylou's embraced full-on for the last few years, folks who do like it will love this album. It's possibly her most personal and soul-searching album to date.

Emmylou Harris & Mark Knopfler "All The Roadrunning" (Nonesuch, 2006)

Emmylou Harris & Mark Knopfler "Real Live Roadrunning" (CD & DVD) (Nonesuch, 2006)

Emmylou Harris "All I Intended To Be" (Nonesuch, 2008)

Emmylou Harris "Hard Bargain" (Nonesuch, 2011)

Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell "Old Yellow Moon" (Nonesuch, 2013)
(Produced by Brian Ahern)

A summit meeting of two giant figures in the modern American scene, and two of my old musical heroes who, I have to admit, have lost my attention in recent years. Rodney and Emmylou go way back: as a Top Forty country star in the 1970s, she recorded several of his early songs and helped establish him as one of the major songwriters of his generation. She was also his boss for several years, as a guitarist he helped anchor the late '70s edition of the Hot Band, before breaking out into his own highly successful solo career. Of course, there are a couple of ways they could have gone with this album -- super-rootsy or high-tech and glossy, which is kind of the direction they've each gone since the late '80s. I guess you could call this album a compromise between those two poles -- it's mostly too slick and lofty for me, but there's a back-to-basics feel on several songs that's kind of nice, and they pick some interesting oldies to cover, including a slew of Rodney Crowell songs such as "Bluebird Wine" and "Bull Rider," which harken back to the old days. It's also nice to hear them reunited with producer Brian Ahern, who sculpted many of Emmylou's classic early albums, and to hear them sing a couple of songs by their old bandmate, steel guitarist Hank DeVito, who also penned some big hits in the early '80s. All in all, a nice outing that will make a lot of old fans feel all warm and fuzzy.

Best Ofs

Emmylou Harris "Profile: The Best Of Emmylou Harris" (Warner, 1978)
The standard-issue "best-of" set from the LP era. Mostly okay, but nowhere near as groovy as the original albums... These songs are great, but the whole albums are even better!

Emmylou Harris "Profile II" (Warner, 1984)

Emmylou Harris "Songs Of The West" (Warner, 1994)

Emmylou Harris "Portraits" (Reprise, 1996)
This 3-CD box set is a pretty strong representation of her best work; if you're looking for a CD overview, then this is your best option, full of plenty of great tracks. Sure, there are plenty of regrettable omissions, but that's inevitable with retrospectives such as this. The third disc has the highest ratio of overly-ornate, pop-oriented material, which is fair enough, I guess -- after all, she did record the stuff. One mild criticism is that they could have included more rarities and/or live material... But I guess that's what bootlegs are made for...

Emmylou Harris/Various Artists "Singin' With Emmylou, v.1" (Raven, 2000)
Once upon a time, music critic John Morthland, in a rare lapse of judgement, casually dissed Emmylou as nothing but a glorified harmony singer, although I'm sure any of the artists who have worked with her in that role have considered themselves to be pretty lucky. This disc is a mixed bag from Australia's grooviest reissue label, which had already given us a fab Gram Parsons collection a few years back. This set of Emmylou duets and guest appearances has plenty of gems, but also a lot of real drek. The sappier stuff -- her work with folks such as Glen Campbell, Dan Fogelberg and Vince Gill -- is pretty goddawful, but when she's paired up with the likes of Waylon Jennings, George Jones and Guy Clark, it's pretty hard to beat. I suppose that's what they make programmable CD players for. A fun set... definitely recommended!

Emmylou Harris/Various Artists "Singin' With Emmylou, v.2" (Raven, 2003)
This second volume of duets is much more delicious than the first, with tasty performances by Emmylou and the likes of Johnny Cash, Billy Joe Shaver, Barry & Holly Tashian, Jim & Jesse, and even old Bill Monroe. Well selected, with gems such as "Greenville" by Lucinda Williams and a rare vocal number by dobro whiz Mike Auldridge, and oddities like an English-German with Tom Astor ("Geh Nicht Allein"). There are some sappy numbers (Mary Black, T. Graham Brown -- ugh.) but for the most part this is a great collection, gathering a lot of rare or widely-separated material. Well worth picking up!

Emmylou Harris "Anthology: The Warner/Reprise Years" (Rhino, 2001)
An outstanding 2-CD collection of Emmylou's best material from her Warner years. Like the other retrospectives, this leaves off some gems and puts in a few duds, but really, what's there to complain about? It's a great best-of, and if you're moved to get the original albums that have the goodies that got left off, then more power to ya'! This collection is highly recommended.

Emmylou Harris "The Very Best Of Emmylou Harris: Heartaches And Highways" (Warner-Rhino, 2005)

Emmylou Harris "Songbird: Rare Tracks And Forgotten Gems" (Rhino, 2007)
As the man in Brush Arbor once said, heaven is a girl named Emmylou... And a lot of other folks have thought so, too, over the years, hence her reputation as one of the finest (and most ubiquitous) harmony singers in modern country music, as well as one of its great innovators. This expansive, well-concieved box set of rarities, duets and far-flung collaborations is a triumph on many levels... First, it's marvel of material culture: four CDs and one video disc, snugly folded up in an elegantly-designed, cardboard-encased digipak, as well as a separate booklet of archival photos and generous liner notes -- all less than an inch-and-a-half in width! (Emmylou Harris: the shelf owners of America salute you!) Inside, the content is rich and fascinating. The first disc is the closest this collection comes to a "greatest hits" set, gathering old albums tracks where Emmylou performs with pals such as Willie Nelson, The Whites, folks from the Seldom Scene and future top country hitmakers Rodney Crowell and Ricky Skaggs (who were both late-'70s members of her famed Hot Band...) ...and of course, her mentor, the great Gram Parsons. The rest of the discs go farther afield, with Emmylou pushing herself stylistically while finding ever more surprising folks to work with -- Beck, Elvis Costello, Sheryl Crow, Chrissie Hynde, Dolores Keane, Mark Knopfler, the McGarrigle Sisters -- as well as keeping up with old friends and relations such as Guy Clark, Steve Earle, George Jones, Iris Dement and them gals from Trio... The video material is even more stunning: BBC footage Emmylou in her full, luminous youth, fronting 1975 edition of the shaggy, stellar Hot Band; Emmylou in '78 crooning tunes like "Making Believe" and "Blue Kentucky Girl"; Emmylou's pre-MTV videos for "Mr. Sandman" and "I Don't Have To Crawl"; Emmylou and Elvis Costello harmonizing onstage at the Grand Ole Opry... does it get much better than this? No, it does not. There's also about an album's worth of previously unreleased music -- much of it is of later vintage, when she was getting more high-tech than some of us might like, yet even cranky traditionalists will be thrilled by the sweetness of a "new" pair of songs featuring Carl Jackson and John Starling, two of Harris's longtime guiding lights. All in all, it's amazing that an artist who has had so many fine best-of packages devoted to her work could still have such a rich treasure trove of "extra" material to add to her legacy. If your initial response was, oh not another Emmylou Harris box set!, take another look: this really is stuff you haven't heard or seen before!

Boo! Hiss! ...False Advertising!!

Carl Jackson "Love Hurts" (Neon, 1999)
Despite being billed as "Emmylou Harris, feat. Carl Jackson," and despite the liner notes which exclusively discuss Emmylou's career, this is in fact a Carl Jackson album, of late vintage, which only features her singing harmony on a couple of tracks. Other country lassies pitch in as well, including (I believe) Melba Montgomery, but essentially this European release is fraudulently packaged, and can can be skipped by Emmylou fans without too much worry.


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