Emmylou Harris and her fans have had much to celebrate in recent years. Already a Country Music Hall of Famer (inducted in 2008, long overdue) and everyone’s bucket-list duet partner, Emmylou has nonetheless continued to push in new artistic directions. Now in her mid-60s, what other female country artist (or female artist of any genre, for that matter) has stayed as consistently relevant as long? While her male contemporaries, such as Willie Nelson, put the songwriting pen away years ago to settle for interpreting the works of others, Emmylou has taken the opposite course, increasingly relying on her own songs and creating progressive aural palettes.
The Daniel Lanois-produced Wrecking Ball from 1995 was the pivot point for Harris’s transformation from earth-sister traditionalist to silver-fox innovator. At the beginning of the aughts, though, Emmylou was still evolving, as Red Dirt Girl, unlike Wrecking Ball, was full of her own compositions, something Harris had rarely before attempted, and was the record that has most informed the spirit of her last decade’s worth of work.
Emmylou made three studio records in the aughts, not including her stellar collaboration with Mark Knopfler, 2006’s All the Roadrunning. Each of those three records — Red Dirt Girl, 2003’s Stumble Into Grace and 2008’s All I Intended to Be — essentially followed the same blueprint, consisting of languid tempos, gauzy sonic embellishments, lush layers of vocals and plenty of reverb. Deliberately paced as the records were, they proved that Harris was aging beautifully and continuing to be an inspired writer, singer and record maker.
At the same time, by the end of the decade, her studio output was starting to feel collectively sleepy. These weren’t songs that you can sing along to exactly, many of them ethereal tone poems that were more about mood than melody. Plus, with an inordinate number of slow-moving material, it was easy to notice that Emmylou was favoring more pinched vocal tones — her famously closed-mouthed delivery often resulting in a slurred bleat. Those modernizations that came with the songwriter’s renaissance had started to sound stuffy in all of that shawls-and-votives-oriented refinery.
Which is why Hard Bargain, Emmylou’s 21st solo studio album, is such a treat. It’s another fresh start for Harris and it’s her most satisfying record in years. It’s easily her toughest since Spyboy, the 1998 live album backed by her lean-and-mean band at the time, which featured Buddy Miller on guitar. Hard Bargain succeeds on a number of other counts. First, Emmylou’s writing is sharper and more focused than ever, favoring tight verses and distinct choruses, and she’s much improved as a lyricist. Second, producer Jay Joyce helps give the record a warm, relatively unfussy sound, cutting the record quickly and using just three musicians — Emmylou herself on acoustic guitar, along with Joyce and multi-instrumentalist Giles Reeves on everything else. The resulting record contains songs that still fill a lot of space — effects-laden guitars, a soft organ, the vocalist’s quintuple-tracked vocals, a broom — but it remains a relaxed record that never feels as though the producer is in the way. And finally, she sounds at ease in these songs — her singing hasn’t felt this unforced in years.
The pop in the kick drum and snare that open lead single “The Road” explains that Hard Bargain means to be more muscular than her recent work. “The Road” is a sequel of sorts to her classic ballad “Birmingham to Boulder”, both written about the death of her old musical partner Gram Parsons. “I can still remember every song you played/long ago when we were younger and we rocked the night away”, she sings on “The Road”. It makes sense, then, that Harris strips away most of the embroidery that has defined her work for a more basic roots-rock approach on this song, although a wash of vocals and chiming guitars create quite a cosmic swirl in the song’s middle section. The song is more hopeful than “Birmingham” (“If it’s only all about the journey in the end/on that road I’m glad I came to know you, my old friend”), but, like most of Hard Bargain, there’s a sadness that’s never far from the surface.
Loss is, in fact, a key theme here. “Darlin’ Kate” is the other tribute to a lost companion, Emmylou’s friend and musical partner Kate McGarrigle, who lost a battle with cancer in 2010. Backed by a piano and a strumming acoustic guitar, it’s the album’s most spare number and ranks among Emmylou’s prettiest ballads. Other songs bring out a fire in the songwriter’s belly: “New Orleans” is probably her fiercest-ever studio rocker. It’s a Katrina song, and with its punchy minor chords and ironic singsong melody, there’s none other quite like it in Emmylou’s catalog. Protest rockers fit her well, it turns out. The other somewhat-political number here is “My Name is Emmett Till”, about the namesake’s 1955 murder, gracefully told here in a first-person dust bowl-style folk ballad with a stark, ghostly arrangement.
Other material is slighter. “Big Black Dog”, for instance, is a knock-kneed track about a pooch that Emmylou rescued from the pound. It’s cute enough, but it’s probably not all that useful to anyone except owners of big black dogs. The song on its own merits doesn’t seem to deserve the cut here.
The album quickly rebounds though with “Lonely Girl”, a gorgeous ballad indicative of Harris’s more direct songwriting on Hard Bargain, all heartbreak lyrics and a dreamy, floating chorus. “Nobody”, likewise, might have fallen through the cracks as one of those elegant-but-lethargic songs on past records, but here, a shuffling drum and bass cadence breathes life into a superb melody and touching lyricism. And if your dream Emmy is the Elite Hotel girl or the Nash Rambler, then “Six White Cadillacs” is your pay dirt. She’s in deliciously vintage form here, slinking around a greasy guitar groove, sounding like she wouldn’t mind burning you down on the roadhouse dance floor if she weren’t way too cool for you.
Just two of these 13 songs are covers this time: the title track, a beauty written by Ron Sexmith — Emmy is delightfully laid back in her vocal approach as a spectral banjo and percolating guitars tiptoe around her. The other is the set-closing “Cross Yourself”, written by the producer, Jay Joyce. The throbbing bass and Emmy’s dripping-wet vocal sighs build to a moving finale. It’s a fitting way to round out an album that, remarkably, builds new momentum on an already extraordinary 40-year musical career.