For me, this is very much a case of old heroes returning. Who could help but be infatuated by the lovely Ms Ronstadt in the middle of the Seventies? She had it all: looks, voice and a clever choice of songs. Ronstadt was one of a wave of American female singers on the borders between rock, country and folk. Emmylou Harris was another of those singers. But she was definitely more country, carrying on Gram Parson’s vision of a marriage between rock and country.
Ronstadt, Harris and the others — especially Dolly Parton — held a high profile, sometimes releasing a couple of LPs a year and often guesting on each others’ records. In the Eighties, Harris, Ronstadt and Parton teamed up for the almost legendary Trio album, a female equivalent of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young.
Time went on. Ronstadt almost retired from music, marrying some lucky fellow and concentrating on home life. Harris carried on making music, always being something of a musicians´ favourite. She came back into the limelight through Wrecking Ball in 1995, produced by Daniel Lanois and the Spyboy album, recorded live in 1998, which re-established her as a major force in contemporary music.
Earlier this year Harris, Ronstadt and Parton released Trio II, and now Harris and Ronstadt hand us their duo effort. And speaking of old heroes, they are joined by Kate and Anna McGarrigle on several tracks; Neil Young turns up on a few as well; and Bernie Leadon, of Eagles fame, plays assorted string instruments throughout.
They present a careful choice of songs. Writers represented include Jackson Browne, Roseanne Cash, Leonard Cohen, Patti Scialfa, Sinead O´Connor and Bruce Springsteen. The big surprise is Harris’s large contribution. Never particularly known for her songwriting skills (though “Boulder to Birmingham,” from her first album in 1975 is one of my all-time favourites), she has three songs on this album.
“Raise the Dead” is a tribute to Hank Williams, Sam Cooke, Bill Monroe and Robert Johnson. It is a simple country tune, seasoned with a touch of blues. “Sweet Spot” is more rock, but still subdued, co-written with Jill Cunniff. “All I Left Behind” brings out the sentiments of a lost love affair, how you leave it all for the one you love. Co-written with the McGarrigles, it is for me the best of Emmylou’s songs.
Other favourites of mine are a retelling of the David Olney song “1917,” a tale of a meeting between a young soldier and a prostitute during World War One; “Sisters of Mercy,” one of Leonard Cohen’s more famous songs; and Sinead O’Connor’s “This Is to Mother You,” a touching song to a child.
As expected, Harris shines all the way through. She does not hit the high notes the way she used to, but there is a maturity in her voice that makes up for that. You get the impression she means every word she sings. She plays a lot of guitar as well, and I have the feeling that she is somewhat underrated as a guitar player. The guitar has always come in second to her voice.
Ronstadt also has made strong comeback. Her voice is slightly harder and not quite as flexible as before, but on songs like “Across the Border” (by Bruce Springsteen) she shows that being a housewife has not made her lose touch with music.
This album will not make you go “WOW” the first time you hear it. Instead, it will grow on you through repeated listenings and become a gentle friend of yours. And if you come home over-stressed from work, put the headphones on and let Harris and Ronstadt comfort and soothe you. It works wonders, at least for me.