Two key albums from the catalog of musical iconoclast Emmylou Harris are at long last available on CD in the United States.
Cimarron (1981) previously only available as an import and Harris' first live album, Last Date (1982), which never had been pressed on CD, hit store shelves Tuesday.
Harris' famously wide-ranging appetite for songs and willingness to take risks with them was apparent back when she recorded Cimarron and Last Date, which Nashville's Eminent label is reissuing.
"Cimarron shows Emmy's ability to weave together a coherent project from a patchwork quilt of songs," said Steve Fishell, who was the steel guitar player with Harris' acclaimed Hot Band at the time of both of these recordings.
Loosely connected by the theme of loneliness set against the wide-open spaces of the American West, the collection contains Townes Van Zandt's "If I Needed You" (RealAudio excerpt) as a duet with Don Williams, the cry-in-your-beer favorite "Last Cheater's Waltz" and Paul Kennerly's defiant loner's roll of the dice, "Born to Run."
The album also featured appearances by former Hot Band members James Burton and Ricky Skaggs.
Learning From Collaboration
"To work with Emmy at that time was a remarkable gift," said Fishell, who contributed acoustic Hawaiian guitar and pedal steel to Cimarron. "She was at the height of her popularity, and yet she completely disarmed me with her unpretentious personality. She let me bring whatever instruments I wanted to into the picture, even encouraged that.
"There was no preconceived notion of what an instrument should sound like. It was more like 'Let's hear the arsenal and see what sounds good.' I learned so much about what to listen for in the studio, what works and what doesn't in a recording session."
Fishell also was a part of the road band, on pedal steel and dobro, for Last Date, Harris' first live album, which was recorded in several California clubs.
"This was all new material, not stuff we'd toured to death," Fishell said, "so it was like doing a recording session in front of an audience exactly like that."
The record, which produced a top-five hit with Hank Snow's "I'm Movin' On" (RealAudio excerpt) and a #1 with the title track, contained songs by Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen, Carl Perkins and Gram Parsons as well as by country stalwarts Snow and the Everly Brothers, reinforcing Harris' view of the range of what the music could be and what her audience could handle.
"The energy and occasional imperfections of live performance were all part of the package Harris wanted to convey, Fishell said. "It wasn't a marching band. ... It wasn't a record that had to be perfect. The proof of authenticity is sometimes in the flaws in the character of the work. Some people like it perfect, and some people like it imperfect, and Emmy is definitely one who likes it imperfect but passionate. The passion level has to be foremost and the flaws are part of the character to her."
Cimarron and Last Date have been updated with liner notes offering bandmembers' insights into their recording, plus song lyrics and photos of Harris from the early 1980s.
Each package also has bonus tracks. On Cimarron, it's Rodney Crowell's delicate ballad about change, "Colors of Your Heart," and for Last Date "Another Pot o' Tea" and Shirley Eikhard's "Maybe Tonight" have been added.
Diverse Range, Numerous Colleagues
Harris has wandered across the borders between country, folk and rock
throughout her career. From her days in the early '70s working with
Byrds alumni such as Gram Parsons
and Chris Hillman, she went on to
join The Band for their renowned
Last Waltz concert, movie and album. She also recorded with
Linda Ronstadt and
COLOR="#003163">Neil Younglater in the decade.
In the '80s she collaborated with Ronstadt and Dolly
Parton on Trio and, on her own, covered material as
diverse as disco diva Donna Summer's
"On the Radio" and bluesman Johnny Ace's
"Pledging My Love."
Wrecking Ball (1997), her multilayered set of songs with atmospheric
production by Daniel Lanois, won
a folk music Grammy, while Harris continued to pursue her taste for
stone country material as in the duets she recorded with songwriter
Buddy Miller on his latest album,
Cruel Moon, on Hightone (1999).
Harris has been maintaining a relatively high profile of late
her songwriter's showcase featuring Gillian
Welch, Buddy and Julie Miller
and others just aired on PBS last weekend, and she's got gigs and an
album of duets Singing' With Emmylou Harris Vol. I on
the Australian label Raven Records coming out in short order,
and she's also busy recording her next one.
Harris also will be gracing the stage of Nashville's historic Ryman
Auditorium on May 24 with T-Bone Burnett,
Welch, Ralph Stanley and others in
an evening of Depression-era music taken from the Burnett-produced
soundtrack to the upcoming Coen brothers film "O Brother, Where Art
Thou?" starring George Clooney, John Goodman and Holly Hunter, which
is set for fall release.