Twelve months short of the thirty-year mark, Rhino unleashes the first five Emmylou Harris albums in remastered editions, all sounding better than ever and sporting a couple of bonus tracks — two on each album, to be exact. (Dern cheapskates!) These albums track Harris’ rise from Gram Parsons’ “girlfriend” to the reigning diva of LA’s country rock elite. With hindsight, it’s hard to understand why these records got pegged that way — they sound a lot more country (and a lot less rock) than anything that has come out of Nashville for at least a decade. They did, however, introduce rock listeners to icons like the Louvin Brothers, Dolly Parton, Townes Van Zandt, and a then-unknown songwriter and picker named Rodney Crowell. Emmylou’s aptly named Hot Band went on to become one of the top country outfits in the nation, and the music here shows Harris and the band going from strength to strength, as they build up their artistic and commercial momentum.
Harris has a voice made for country music, with its vulnerability and power perfectly balanced between revenge and resignation. There are too many transcendent moments on these albums to fit here, but standout tracks include a tearjerking rendition of Don Gibson’s “Sweet Dreams” (on Elite Hotel); “California Cottonfields,” an ode to working-class desperation first done by Merle Haggard (a bonus track on Pieces of the Sky); the Cajun-style cover of Chuck Berry’s “C’est La Vie” (Luxury Liner); and the duets with Tanya Tucker, Don Everly, and the Whites that grace Blue Kentucky Girl. It’s great to have these albums back. There’s not a weak track on any of ’em (including the bonus cuts), and they’re too important to the history of country music not to remain in print. — j. poet