Emmylou Harris drives a Hard Bargain with some of her best solo work
Although she is well-known as the go-to harmony singer for singer-songwriters everywhere, Emmylou Harris has developed a solo career that is pretty formidable in its own right. 1995’s Wrecking Ball is the gold standard for her solo work, and she’s managed to churn out 21 solo albums, which is pretty amazing considering how highly in demand she is as a supporting vocalist.
Much of that solo work has been based on her interpretations of the work of other songwriters, but her latest, Hard Bargain, marks a bit of a departure. That’s because Harris is on the hook as the primary songwriter for 11 of the 13 songs on the album. It’s a testament to her songwriting ability that this collection stands easily with some of her best solo work, especially considering some of the giants who have provided her material in the past.
Harris’ writing style is definitely on the low-key side. She tells simple stories about simple people, but there’s a charm in the directness of her approach. It’s that kind of approach that allows her to inhabit the character of a doomed black boy in “My Name Is Emmitt Till” without it sounding like an act of grandstanding.
Subtlety is the name of the game throughout on Hard Bargain. The musical backing, all handled by Harris and collaborators Jay Joyce and Giles Reeves, is tasteful and well-played, but it wisely stays out of the way of the vocals. And those vocals never, ever make a wrong turn. Harris’ bluegrass-tinged take on Ron Sexsmith’s title track, one of the two covers on the record, is a master class of interpretation, as she adds layers of emotion without ever getting showy.
If there is something that will bring the album some headlines, it’s Harris’ willingness to look into her storied past for inspiration. “The Road” tells of her musical relationship with Gram Parsons, the gone-too-soon founding father of alt-country who was the first to utilize Harris’ harmonizing to push his compositions to another level. The song she writes here is a lovely ode to that friendship and how Parsons inspired her to forge her own musical path.
In a similar vein, “Darlin Kate” pays tribute to the late folk singer Kate McGarrigle. No one else’s voice could be so effective in eulogizing a friend, and when Harris sings that McGarrigle was “the sweetest note in the chord of life, “ well, we should all be so lucky to be described in such a lovely fashion someday.
Hard Bargain stays clear, for the most part, from anything up-tempo. That’s probably a good thing, because the faster tracks included here are pedestrian. Things get much better when Harris rides high and lonesome over well-observed character sketches like “Lonely Girl” and “Ship On His Arm.” You know how they have musical mentors on American Idol? They could save the money and have contestants listen to tracks like these so they can see how it’s supposed to be done.
While the album might not be an attention-grabber, it rewards those who are looking for a rich, rewarding listening experience. Emmylou Harris has always been known for her singing voice, but it’s the songwriting voice inside of her that makes Hard Bargain such a winner.