After 35-plus years of recordings, fans of Emmylou Harris have come up with numerous reasons to explain why the music fashioned by the Americana matriarch remains so engaging.
It might be the '70s country songs fortified with the inspiration of mentor Gram Parsons. Perhaps it is the stately bluegrass she created with her band the Nash Ramblers. Other considerations include the popular trio tunes cut with Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt and the less genre-specific but more atmospheric recordings that opened up after the Grammy-winning success of her album Wrecking Ball.
Luckily, preparation for Harris' Lexington return on Monday for two tapings of WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour offered occasion to approach her extensive career from a perhaps less-obvious angle.With a rainy Saturday afternoon at my disposal and a hearty pile of Harris albums released since 1975 near the stereo, I looked to design a list of the 63-year-old singer's overlooked triumphs. In short, the mission was to compile a list of 10 great Harris songs that weren't massive hits and only sporadically — if ever — held a place in her concert repertoire.
These aren't the sorts of works that are likely to appear on the set list for WoodSongs. Expect her performance to be devoted mostly to music from her new album, Hard Bargain, due out in late April. But these songs remain vital additions to a remarkable Americana career that continues to evolve and impress.
Here are the treasures that were rediscovered:
Queen of the Silver Dollar from Pieces of the Sky, 1975: A regal portrait of Harris and the mid-'70s lineup of her Hot Band in all its honky-tonk glory. Written by Shel Silverstein.
When I Stop Dreaming from Luxury Liner, 1976: Still one of Harris' most achingly beautiful traditional country-music performances. Written by the Louvin Brothers.
Gold Watch and Chain from Roses in the Snow, 1980: An acoustic departure into pre-bluegrass country with Kentucky's own Ricky Skaggs as a duet partner. Written by A.P. Carter.
Golden Cradle from Light of the Stable, 1980: A haunting yet graceful yuletide meditation set to a stark guitar and vocal arrangement. A traditional Irish carol.
The Last Cheater's Waltz from Cimarron, 1981: Few of Harris' recordings dress country heartbreak with more majestic, orchestral longing. Written by Sonny Throckmorton.
If You Were a Bluebird from Bluebird, 1989: Harris' vocal entrance on a cushion of mandolins makes for one of country music's great sleeper moments. Written by Butch Hancock.
Crescent City from Cowgirl's Prayer, 1993: Harris heads to New Orleans for a lovely and lively Cajun-accented celebration. Written by Lucinda Williams.
May This Be Love from Wrecking Ball, 1995: A radical (for Harris) guitar- saturated trio summit with Daniel Lanois and U2's Larry Mullen Jr. Written by Jimi Hendrix.
Dimming of the Day from Portraits, 1996: A gorgeous folk lament that surfaced as a rarity on the Portraits boxed-set anthology. Written by Richard Thompson.
Sailing Round the Room from All I Intended to Be, 2008: An unintended requiem that offered a final recorded collaboration with the late Kate McGarrigle. Written by Harris and Kate and Anna McGarrigle.