Emmylou Harris: A Story in a Song

(for Karyn Callaghan)

“lookin’ for the water from a deeper well”
— (Dave Olney, Daniel Lanois, Emmylou Harris)

My friend Karyn Callaghan tried for years to get me to listen to Emmylou Harris. She’d drop her name casually, subtly. But I don’t do subtlety, I do directness. So, she brought a video into her office and said, “Here, watch and listen.” I did.

At the time, I was more smitten by the woman than the music. She looked pale, ghostly; she was expressionless, almost motionless. There was an aura of strangeness around her. She sounded country, but she didn’t look country.

A few years went by. Karyn doesn’t give up easily. She lent me a few CDs. There were songs that I liked, especially ones that Emmylou herself had written. I was beginning to hear something more than country, something like a ballad: a poem put to song, a story put to music.

This year the sky opened and the sun shone through. I began to hear what I think my friend has heard for a long time: a haunting voice, a musical-spiritual presence, a balladeer. Emmylou Harris has heaven and earth in her voice. She can hang it on a cloud or trawl it through mud.

Johnny Cash did his best work in the last few years of his life. Emmylou Harris is doing her best work right now. Listen to Stumble Into Grace. I’ve done a lot of stumbling, and occasionally I’ve felt that grace was near. I bought the CD for the title. I haven’t been disappointed. So far I’ve given it about a hundred listens, and I’m not tired of it.

Now I’m making my way back, back to Wrecking Ball, where the songs for the most part aren’t her own, but her sound is. Her voice is “a beautiful pond for anything to drown in.”* Things open up the Wrecking Ball. That’s when she found “the water from a deeper well.” From Wrecking Ball, I’ve moved to Red Dirt Girl, songs of her own composition, rich in storytelling.

The lead song is a compressed novel, each stanza a chapter. It’s a story of two Alabama girls, two red dirt girls. One lives a tale and the other tells it. Lillian loses her brother in Vietnam, she loses her dog, but she still wants to swing her “hammer down” and “make a joyful sound”. She loses some more. Her daddy turns mean, her mama leans hard. She gets pregnant. She tries to love her man but “it doesn’t take”. By 27, she has five kids and still hasn’t got out of her backyard.

But one thing they don’t tell you about the blues
When you got em
You keep on falling cause there ain’t no bottom

She starts to skid. She takes to whiskey and pills. She tries to kill her dream of travel, of change. Isn’t that why we travel?

The song ends hard and harsh. It ends true:

Tonight she finally laid
That hammer down
Without a sound
In the red dirt ground

So, who is Emmylou Harris? Samuel Beckett in song? She’s a master of short, bleak, female lives.

She sings about another red dirt girl in Stumble Into Grace, in her song “O Evangeline.” Maybe Evangeline is Lillian’s cousin. She takes the wrong roads, she burns her bridges. She’s alone, with “no kith or kin”.

And the point of rescue well
You passed that long ago

All through the song, the balladeer salutes a fallen life, a shrunken life, a noble life. She drinks to her, she brings “bread and roses” to her, she dreams of her.

But in your tongue
There is no word for home
There’ll be no one
To roll away the stone

No one to roll away the stone. It’s hard to think of a bleaker line unless it’s from Beckett.

You stayed out in that ring
When nobody’s even keepin’ score
But round by round you earned
Your stumble into grace

Here the song lifts. Evangeline has her stumble into grace. She’s beaten: “You sleep with none/You wake with ghosts”. She’s “lost unto this world,” the title of another song on Grace. But something luminous in her life shines through the destruction and defeat.

Emmylou Harris gives you more than bleak songs about fighters fated to lose. She gives you religion in a cup; she gives you all the world’s religions in a single, simple metaphor. What you need to take from Christianity or Judaism, Islam or Buddhism isn’t doctrine or dogma; it’s a cup of kindness. The metaphor, the image, is Christian, but it has universal application.

In “Cup Of Kindness,” she tells the story of a seeker, a man or a woman on a pilgrimage to unlock secrets and understand mysteries. But “it was in a cup of kindness all the time.” The seeker feels the thirst, but what comes to him or her isn’t “what you think.” It doesn’t steal the soul or leave you blind. “It was just a cup of kindness all the time.”

Emmylou says Mother Mary could come to call, but you wouldn’t know. “She could pass right thru your heart/And leave no trace at all.” The seeker reaches for “the sacred and divine,” but doesn’t realize that “She was standing right beside you/All the time.”

What does the song leave you with? A woman, an emblem of motherhood—the gracious, Cosmic Mother who is always near. And a cup. Kindness. Religion in a word. All the religions of the world in a single word.

  • The phrase “a beautiful pond for anything to drown in” comes from Marilyn Manson’s depiction of Jim Morrison’s voice in Rolling Stone Magazine, April 04.

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