Hardly Strictly Bluegrass: Emmylou Harris

Pub date October 3, 2007
SectionMusicSectionMusic Features

Emmylou Harris tends to overwhelm with her beauty in flesh and in voice, so it’s instructive to look to her new rarities collection, Songbird: Rare Tracks and Forgotten Gems (Rhino), for reminders of earthly frailty. From the get-go, the recording reveals that even she has feet of clay. Harris can be derivative — exhibit A: disc one’s "Clocks." This early song displays her in warbly thrush mode. She sounds like a Judy Collins also-ran, and this is a good thing. For the one negative that can be ascribed to Harris the icon is the way she has been saddled with the male-reified pose of tasteful, circumspect handmaiden to Saint Gram Parsons. Such a misstep, alongside the breadth of Harris’s myriad career highs, deflates the myth to human size. I love my Georgia homeboy Parsons and am well aware of the degree to which Harris’s torch bearing is self-appointed, but one still wonders how her progress might have looked were she not stifled by such a fantasy.

Apocrypha has acolyte Harris seeking advice from folkie god Pete Seeger on how to infuse her material with bite in the face of a relatively dulcet reality. While the voice was and remains undeniable in its beauty and harmonic gifts, this box reaffirms that Harris’s intersection with Parsons was the vital source of that infusion of grit and angst. This can be seen in their twangy gospel "The Old Country Baptizing," but her trail also leads in other fascinating directions, toward the hallucinatory spook of "Snake Song." Songbird‘s other boons are a swath of Harris’s fabled collaborations with Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt, as well as a rewind to a range of guests as diverse as the late Waylon Jennings, Beck, Dire Straits’ Mark Knopfler, and her great band Spyboy. This is certainly a good example of curating a legacy — something to contemplate when the historied Harris takes the stage at the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival.


Sun/7, 5:45 p.m., free

Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, Banjo Stage


The free festival happens Oct. 5, beginning at 3 p.m., and Oct. 6 to 7, starting at 11 a.m., at Speedway, Lindley, and Marx meadows in Golden Gate Park, SF. For more information on all of the performers and events, go to www.strictlybluegrass.com.