I said in a previous Emmylou piece “The formula remains the same (this is Country music so yes there’s a formula. If you’re after the new or innovative then go look elsewhere).”
Well, may I present to you innovation in Country music, cos when Emmylou released “Wrecking Ball” it shook the Country world and was a genuine ground breaking album. 1993’s album “Cowgirl’s Prayer” was favourably reviewed but ignored by radio. In an interview Emmylou said
“I think I could record an album of Hank Williams songs and be told that it was (either) not country enough or too traditional…It's pretty obvious to me that I'm not going to be played on country radio, so why not just go to that other place that I've always been, anyway? I've always had one foot in left field. So I just decided to plant the other one there”
The result was “Wrecking Ball”, what can only be described as a career re-defining record to be placed right up alongside Johnny Cash’s “American Recordings”. She chose as her producer and co-writer Daniel Lanois (producer of U2, Peter Gabriel, Brian Eno, Youssou N’Dour), not your typical choice for a Country singer. She bought in songs by Neil Young, Jimi Hendrix and new artists like Gillian Welch and the album features guest appearances by Young, Steve Earle and U2’s Larry Mullen Jr. This definitely wasn’t Nashville calling.
The change in sound is obvious from the very start of track one, side one (remember that thing about setting expectations from the start) “Where Will I Be”. Written by Daniel Lanois it sets off with gentle, vaguely military style drums which are joined by a distant, echoed, indistinct and most un-country guitar. There’s a change in Emmylou’s voice from when I was last listening (there are 14 years between “Evangeline” and here). It sounds wiser, wearier, I hate to say it but smokier, like good smooth Bourbon that has aged particularly well. It’s just as clear with a slight rasp in the background but it has matured. This atmosphere continues right throughout the record.
Next is Steve Earle’s “Goodbye”. Earle had only released it 7 months earlier on his album “Train A-Comin’”, a gentle country ballad sung in his Southern drawl with slide guitar and harmonica. He plays acoustic guitar here on Emmylou’s version, U2’s Larry Mullen Jr is on drums, but this is an altogether more stately and ethereal affair, the soundscape that Lanois created on the opening song is constant. With all respect to Steve Earle, Emmylou pulls things out of the melody that Steve only hinted at.
“All My Tears” is where you can really appreciate how Emmylou has lent her voice to sit within this new setting Lanois is creating for her. It puts me in mind of Native American chanting, I don’t know why but that’s the feeling I get from it.
The next 3 songs are some of my very favourite Emmylou Harris recordings. Title song “Wrecking Ball” was written by Neil Young fo his 1989 album “Freedom” and he adds to this track singing harmony. That echoey guitar has picked up a slight modulation as it (finger) picks out the melody, the backing track is understated, it is there purely to support this incredible voice, never to overshadow it. Emmylou’s voice is high and pure on the chorus
“Meet me at the Wrecking Ball, the Wrecking Ball,
I’ll wear something pretty and white, And we’ll go dancing tonight”
Anna McGarrigle’s “Goin’ Back To Harlan” sees us back in folky mode and singing of old Appalachian songs, the bells of Rhymney, traditional reels, Willie Moore, Barbara Allen and Ewan MacColl’s Fair Ellen. It’s a song about looking back on simpler times and it’s lovely.
Then it's “Deeper Well”, a song with a much darker feel to it. Written by David Olney (a man who died onstage mid-gig. He reportedly sat down, closed his eyes, apologised and never moved again), it’s a song looking for it, whatever “it” might be, love, safety, redemption, rejection, oblivion, they’re all in here. A song that conjures the image of the Southern Gothic
“Well, I did it for kicks and I did it for faith, I did it for lust and I did it for hate
I did it for need and I did it for love, Addiction stayed on tight like a glove”
That was one helluva side one !
The last highpoint on this wonderful record is the final song “Waltz Across Texas Tonight” (I’m not saying there’s nothing else of worth on side 2, there is, but you don’t want me walking you through every track, go have a listen). Borrowing the title of a 1965 Ernest Tubb song (“Waltz Across Texas”) Emmylou and Rodney Crowell conjure up a tale of a couple and their journey through their life. This song was first recorded with Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt but went unreleased at the time. Here Emmylou harmonises with Kate and Anna McGarrigle and it’s a superb and optimistic end to a fabulous record.
“But the moon is so full, the stars are so bright, And my hand is steady, my touch is light
Look in my eyes, hold on real tight, And I'll waltz you my darling across Texas tonight”
Emmylou Harris had obviously put her complete trust in Daniel Lanois to create a backdrop and an overall atmosphere that suited her and left space for her voice to work its magic. “Wrecking Ball” was quite unlike anything she had ever produced before and has defined a new musical world for her work in ever since. 20 years after “Pieces Of the Sky” the “Queen Of the Silver Dollar” found a sound that set her apart from her Country music peers and bought her to a whole new audience. It’s a quite breathtaking record.
All My Tears - https://youtu.be/7naQUkKKmeo