By Karl Byrn
Emmylou Harris has royal status as the go-to gal for alt-country duets. Country music's once-powerful male/female vocal-duet tradition has waned in modern times, but Harris has kept that door open, from her early '70s roots with country-rock hippie Gram Parsons to her 2004 work with alt-country hero Steve Earle. This year, Emmylou has already appeared as guest vocalist on new releases by indie-pop icon Conor Oberst and folk-rock mainstay Neil Young.
Harris may be the last great pre-Garth country traditionalist, but her background and instincts have always drawn her to newer rock edges. She delicately blended rock classics with bluegrass standards on 1992's live At the Ryman, and has since recorded two albums with ambient modern rock producer Daniel Lanois.
What if Emmylou's impulse to explore the edge was as strong as her desire to duet? Certainly, artists outside of the alt-country scene could benefit from her calming beauty and fragile birdlike voice. She has a distinct musical presence that outshines her limited singing skills, a wispy wail that could add character to a broad range of styles.
In honor of Harris' lifetime of achievement in alt-country duets, I've given myself the exercise of finding new partners for her, as well as imagining classics that would sound better with her voice. Easy irony might see poor Ms. Harris in the studio with hardcore gangsta rappers like Mac Dre or metal mongers like Cannibal Corpse. That's funny, but I'm sure there's extreme music that she could lead back to its true center.
There's a need for Emmylou on the Mars Volta's 2005 Latin-based prog-metal free-jazz ambient-spazz epic Frances the Mute. By bringing purity and balance to Volta's passionate Coltrane-like metal mayhem, Harris would transform this art piece into something like Emmy the Articulate. Her soft, steady tones are the missing counterpoint to the flailing of Volta singer Cedric Bixler-Zavala, and they share the same high pitch. Harris' emotional craft would reveal the plaintive ballad inside Volta's lady-of-the-night purge "L'Via l'Viaquez," and the foreign language would be no problem—after all, she's covered Edith Piaf before.
Partnering with the Mars Volta doubles Harris' résumé; no longer just the Queen of Country Duets, she'd be the Queen of Hypertechnical Noise-Rock. But Emmylou's imminent calling is hip-hop's cutting edge, where she's needed by the country boys of "hick-hop" and the soft boys of "emo-rap." I'm surprised she didn't guest on Bubba Sparxxx's 2004 rap hit Deliverance in the first place. Sonically, Sparxxx and Harris are almost identical: they both have a Southern accent, and they both like fiddles. Harris would give a poignant boost to Bubba's sad and restless "She Tried," where a fiddle loop rides a sparse clippity-clop beat into classic country regret. She's surely the model for "the fly country girl" of Sparxxx's heartache.
Alt-hip-hop is a gold mine for Harris duets. She's a match for the unpretentious twang of rapper Buck 65. He's from Canada, and Harris has already proven she can work with Canadians like Neil Young. And since Garrison Keillor showed that people in Minnesota like old-time gospel and bluegrass, it's only a matter of time before Harris trades plainspoken lines with Minneapolis emo-rapper Slug.
I also hear Emmylou adding zest to classic bebop. Her good taste in tradition likely includes the Benny Goodman/Lionel Hampton standard "Flying Home," and though it's an instrumental, Hampton's mid-'50s version with pianist Oscar Peterson has a spot waiting for Harris. Around the 14-minute mark of this robust 17-minute swing workout, vibraphonist Hampton starts to moan and growl as the band surges. He's really feeling it, joyously pushing them higher. Alternating with each of his grunts, I sense a contented Emmylou purr.
Emmylou deserves the very greatest music. I don't mean merely the Beatles, Mozart or Leo Sayer. I'm talking about Blue Öyster Cult's Secret Treaties, a miracle that deserves its own queen. Harris is all about this disc's themes of S&M, espionage and alien abduction. BÖC already wrote a theme song for her. When she sings with them, they'll change they lyrics of "Career of Evil" to "Career of Duets."
From the November 9-15, 2005 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.
© 2005 Metro Publishing Inc.