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February 08, 2007

Duets With Emmylou

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Surfing music-performance videos on YouTube recently, I found myself musing about the numerous ways we can (and often do) enjoy singers. Some we like mainly for their voices and musicality, of course. But some we enjoy more for their personal style. Some are amusing divas while others we take to as though they're Real People.

The country-folk singer Emmylou Harris is a case in point, at least for me. She's a legendary beauty and a terrific talent, of course. Even so, I've never enjoyed her work as a solo performer. Despite her many gifts, when she's at the center of the spotlight I find her ... I dunno, limited, narrow, monotonous. A bit too pure, a bit too much the frozen love-object. Unkind of me to say, but it would never occur to me to buy a solo Emmylou CD.

At the same time, there aren't many popular-music singers I enjoy more than Emmylou as a backup vocalist or a duetist. When she's singing as part of a group and not as a star, she seems to free up. She ditches the self-consciousness, and something I love -- something sultry, low-down, and good-humored -- makes an appearance. That famously angelic voice of hers treats itself to a roll in the dirt. She stops being all refined spirit and connects as well with her soul, her guts, and her pelvis. She pitches in. And lordy isn't that some sexy fun to witness?

So to celebrate Emmylou's work the way I prefer it, let me pass along a couple of terrific vids. First up is a raucous, swinging duet on "Two More Bottles of Wine" with the song's writer, the Texas bar-band genius Delbert McClinton.

A nice combo of rollicking and easygoing, no? Relaxed and exuberant -- a ruefully lusty toast to what a messed-up thing life can be. Pretty thrilling, in fact: friendship, loveplay, and mischief all wrapped up in one -- that's what it looked, sounded, and felt like to me anyway. I celebrated the glory that is Delbert McClinton here.

In clip #2, Emmylou shares "Black Diamond Strings" with the Texas alt-folkie Guy Clark, whose face wins the "lived-in" award and retires it once and for all.

I love the metaphysical earthiness of the performance: the combo of mournfulness and joy, of dreaminess and informality. I'm also touched by the droney-waltzy remoteness, which somehow makes life seem so much sweeter than it often does. The performance is like an old Daguerreotype come to musical life right in your own living room.

And Emmylou: Hippie goddess though she obviously is, doesn't she also come across as a pliable, sly, many-sided creature? She isn't just an icon to be admired and worshipped; she's someone you're sharing some tangy private / public intimacy with. She's got a pulse; she lets herself vibrate.

Bizarre but there it is: In my personal canon, Emmylou Harris is one of my favorite singers -- so long as she's sharing a song with someone else.

Here's a posting with links to some other terrific country-music performances. It includes one -- just to break my own rule -- to a "San Antonio Rose" by a solo Emmylou that I really like. Here's a CD collection of Emmylou duets.

You know the case some people make that the best singer-songwriters of the last 40 years have outdone our literary short-story writers? Guy Clark is a singer-songwriter who makes that argument seem very plausible. I especially love this Guy CD, and this one too. Hey, why not spend a few minutes in the company of Guy Clark singing "L.A. Freeway"?

Emmylou fans should hurry to make the acquaintance of YouTube uploader StAlphege, a major-league Emmylou buff who has been very generous in sharing her collection of clips.



posted by Michael at February 8, 2007


Emmylou does a great duet with Beck on "Sin City," a Graham Parsons song. I can't remember where it's from, I found it online, of course.

Posted by: the patriarch on February 8, 2007 11:56 AM

It's on the Gram Parsons tribute CD that she produced, "Return of the Grievous Angel."

Posted by: JW on February 8, 2007 12:33 PM

A dozen years ago I read a comment to the effect that adults were giving up pop music, and drifting towards Country Music, in the US, and Classical, in the UK. Was he right?

Posted by: dearieme on February 8, 2007 5:23 PM

Guy Clark is currently touring with Joe Ely, John Hiatt, and Lyle Lovett in a songwriter's circle, where all four appear on stage together and take turns singing their own compositions while playing acoustic guitars. If they come near you, beg, borrow, or steal to go to the show.

Posted by: mdmnm on February 8, 2007 6:19 PM

Emmylou Harris recently did a whole disc of duets with Dire Straits' Mark Knopfler called All the Roadrunning. I'm generally a sucker for duets, too, so I'm enjoying it, even if it doesn't have any songs that totally knock your socks off (which, with Knopfler's songwriting abilities and Emmylou's voice, it theoretically *should* have). Many are still good songs and great duets.

I can't entirely account for it, but I am an example of a guy who is aging his way into country/alt-country tastes. I would have laughed at the idea even five years ago.

Posted by: Chris Floyd on February 8, 2007 7:21 PM

Fans of singer-songwriter types should check out Fionn Regan and Herman Dune.

Posted by: Brian on February 8, 2007 8:37 PM

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