With pop music, the transcendent moment comes when a song helps you make sense of your life. As you get older, it seems that pop music provides fewer and fewer of those moments.
It's uncertain whether this is a function of the state of the industry, although our suspicion is that most of what's issued these days just wants to be well-liked and successful. Emmylou Harris, however, is one of few transcendent artists still out there.
When she was younger, she sang with a purity and sense of adventure that nobody in Nashville seemed to possess. As country music kept shriveling, it was Harris, as if directly connected to those old Anglo-Celtic hillbilly spirits, who could breathe life into the old corpse.
Then in 1995 Emmylou teamed up with producer Daniel Lanois to release Wrecking Ball, an album of such emotional and stylistic complexity that it defined that space called alternative country. In the five years since, she has assembled a new band and gotten rid of a husband, a manager and a record label. She's also been writing her own material.
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On her new album, Red Dirt Girl, Harris's songs seem to spring from a theological perspective. She appears to see things from one end of the world to the other. The sight brings pain, regret and remorse. As it should. On the opening track, "The Pearl," she compares herself to an "aging soldier in an ancient war" and writes, "Time is a brutal but a careless thief / Who takes our lot but leaves behind the grief." The best we can hope for is "a glimpse of Galilee." God, she seems to be saying, may be the healer of shattered hearts, but how can we know when all we hear is his silence?
Regret is the theme of "Tragedy," her collaboration with Rodney Crowell. Since both Harris and Crowell have gone through divorces, it's hard to separate the song lyrics from the personal disasters. You want reassurance? Don't look for it here. Except maybe in the knowledge that others are going through what you are.
Joy does not last. Youth is only fleeting. Harris believes neither changes us nor deepens our understanding. Perhaps that's why there's so little transcendence in pop music these days. With Emmylou Harris, on the other hand, you get an understanding of the pain that's part of living in an unredeemed world. That's news we can use.
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