Wednesday, November 16, 2016
MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: EMMYLOU HARRIS - RED DIRT GIRL (Vinyl reissue)
1995's Wrecking Ball was a complete artistic rebirth for Harris, as she abandoned the path of popular country music, and became the first star of what became known as roots or Americana. This was accomplished with the full encouragement of producer Daniel Lanois, who brought his modern soundscapes to her music, as well as his covers of his own songs, and similar writers such as Neil Young, Gillian Welch and Steve Earle.
The last piece of the transformation came five years later. Harris was always known as a great interpreter, who rarely dared bring her own writing forward. But her new style had also brought her lots of new confidence, and the floodgates opened. She chose to make her next solo studio album, 2000's Red Dirt Girl, all her own songs (save one, by pal Patty Griffin). Lanois was unavailable to continue, but his mixer, engineer, and lieutenant Malcolm Burn did return as producer, and the album earned a Grammy award for folk recording of the year, using much the same kind of sound found on Wrecking Ball.
If she had been worried about her own writing not matching that of her famous pals and peers, she needn't have been. The shock here wasn't that she was doing it, but just how great a songwriter she was. There were a couple of co-writes, by notables such as Rodney Crowell and Guy Clark, but on her own, there were stunning, deeply powerful numbers, including The Pearl and Michelangelo, with spiritual qualities. Harris was also a fine storyteller, as the title track showed, about watching a small-town friend grow up into a harsh reality. She could even have fun, with Boy From Tupelo, a break-up song featuring sage advice from the king of rock'n'roll.
The big news with this reissue is that it's the first time the album has come out on vinyl, stretched out over a 2-LP set here. You'd think it would be a natural for the new generation of vinyl collector, but actually the style of production, that murky, mysterious New Orleans vibe Burn and Lanois had developed, doesn't lend itself that well to 33 and a third. I think it would take a significant remix for that, which would actually change the whole idea of the recording. No matter, it's always nice to have the vinyl of a great album.