Monday, November 10, 2008

Emmylou Takes Us Back To The Future

If you had a desire to return to an era when life was simpler, say 1955, you’d have two possible options. 1 - find a guy called Doc Brown who owns a Delorian car featuring a fully operational flux capacitor, and accelerate said Delorian to a speed of 88MPH; or 2 - close your eyes and submit to the charms of Emmylou Harris’ 1981 version of the 50s pop classic ‘Mister Sandman’. Now, unless your name is Marty McFly and you have a penchant for fast cars, I’d recommend you choose option #2.

Singer Emmylou Harris had already established herself as one of the pre-eminent country singers in the U.S. by the time of her 1981 album which yielded ‘Mister Sandman’. The singer blessed with a crystalline voice grew up on a diet of folk music, and honed her craft on the Greenwich Village scene in the late 60s. She recorded her debut LP with 1970’s ‘Gliding Bird’. After a difficult period in her personal life, Harris struck up a fruitful professional relationship with ex-Flying Burrito Brother Gram Parsons. Parsons acted as a mentor to Harris, who provided her sublime vocals on Parsons’ first two albums, and toured with the singer right up until his premature death in 1973.

By 1975 Emmylou Harris had settled in Los Angeles and released her major label debut as a solo artist with ‘Pieces of the Sky’, which featured an eclectic mix of covers. The album was produced by Brian Ahern who would oversee Harris’ next ten releases. During this period Harris began her long term collaborative endeavours with Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt and Neil Young. Over the next thirty years the four artists would contribute much to one another’s work. The last half of the 70s saw Emmylou Harris score a string of hit albums and singles, achieving her greatest chart success in the country genre. Albums such as ‘Luxury Liner’ (1977) and ‘Blue Kentucky Girl’ (1979) firmly established her in the upper echelon of pop/country vocalists on the American music scene.

In 1981 Emmylou Harris took a break from touring to focus on family duties, but that didn’t stop her from releasing the album ‘Evangeline’ (US#22 - #10 country). The album was made up of a hotchpotch of leftover material from previous projects - not throwaways mind, but orphaned gems in need of a good home. One of those gems was Harris’ cover of ‘Mister Sandman’. Complimenting her sweet vocals were the pure harmonies of Linda Ronstadt and Dolly Parton. Written by Pat Ballard, ‘Mister Sandman’ had originally been a sweet little pop song from the late 50s. It holds the rare distinction of having reached the US top five twice within a year, by two separate artists. Female vocal group The Chordettes first took it all the way to #1 in late 1954, and just a few weeks later male vocal group the Four Aces took their rendition to #5. Emmylou Harris added her own magic to the mix of the song and took it to #37 in the U.S. (#10 country), and scored her biggest pop hit in Australia with ‘Mister Sandman’ peaking at #19 in mid ‘81.

Actually Harris’ version of the song had arisen out of the then yet to be finalised ‘Trio’ sessions with Ronstadt and Parton, which finally come to fruition on the 1987 U.S. #6 album of the same name. Over the course of the 90s Emmylou Harris continued to grow as an artist, explored new styles of music, and worked in partnership with some of the best in the business, including Willie Nelson and Neil Young. She teamed up again with Ronstadt and Parton for 1998’s ‘Trio II’.

Over the last decade the woman with the voice of a country angel has continued to record her own albums, toured regularly, collaborated with Elvis Costello, Bruce Springsteen, Anne Murray and Mark Knopfler among others, and performed regularly with Neil Young. Most recently she reunited with producer Brian Ahern for her 2008 album ‘All I Intended To Be’.

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