Emmy Lou Harris was a pop singer who desperately wanted to find some roots. She got her wish. She's now a pure country artist.
Dolly Parton -- Harris' inspiration as a singer with real country roots -- desperately wanted mass success. Parton also got her way. She's now pure pop product.
These two friends have made the country-pop crossover in opposite directions. Harris' esthetic pilgrimage has led to the achingly pure bluegrass of "Roses in the Snow" (Warner Brothers BSK 3422). Parton's commercial quest has led her to the inexcusable schlock of "Dolly, Dolly, Dolly" (RCA AHL1-3546).
Harris' country music has nothing to do with the made-for-TV soap-opera songs coming out of Nashville now. Nor does her music have much to do with the honky-tonk rebel yells of progressive country. Even calling it Bluegrass is misleading, for her record is hardly the pickers' duel that most modern Bluegrass is reduced to.
Harris (who will perform at Wolf Trap tomorrow night) sings rural American music with the same simple, direct feelings that the original Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers brought to it before World War II.
Harris has learned rough-hewn sluices of simpler, older transactions. The resulting music is hardly innovative or assertive, but it does ring true.
You can hear Harris surrender in the face of death on the old church hymn, "Wayfaring Stranger." Her heavily echoed voice has the unnatural calm of religious faith in the dying hour.
A dobro reverberates as if the ground were falling out from under her. When Harris sings, "I'm only going over Jordan," she sounds so ghostly you believe she's halfway gone. Harris sings two more traditional hymns and a new one by Ralph Stanley, all about going from the deathbed to heaven. These four hymns are the album's standouts.
A large portion of the record's power comes from Harris' longtime sidekick, Ricky Skaggs. Skaggs plays a fiddle as lonesome as a funeral train whistle and a mandolin as bright and chirply as a bush of blackbirds.
Skaggs leads an all-star country string band that features Albert Lee on mandolin, Bryan Bowers on autoharp and Jerry Douglas on dobro. Only two cuts have any electric guitar; only one has any percussion. The overall purity of sound fits Harris' voice perfectly.
Harris is a good lead singer, but she is probably the best harmony singer in America today. Appropriately then she only sings one song all by herself on the new record.
The other cuts feature duets or choir singing with Skaggs, Parton, the White Family, Linda Ronstadt, Johnny Cash and Tony Rice. Harris provides the dancing shadows to the solid shapes of their voices.
The record's limitation is the fatalism of all the material. As lovely and affecting as they are, the songs all sacrifice individual choices to traditional customs.
Feminists who like to attack the Rolling Stones could build a far better case against Dolly Parton's male producers. Here is a woman who not only spoke freely and sang powerfully, but was one of country music's best songwriters.
Her producers, however, have squelched her individual talents and made her sing the same songs everyone else sings the same way everyone else sings them.
Since she crossed over from country to pop, each of Parton's albums has contained fewer of her own songs and more Tin Pan Alley commissions. Her newest record contains no originals and 10 completely fortable pop tunes. Moreover, the lyrics force the role of "dumb blond" on Parton, who is anything but. The sharp and articulate Parton is forced to sing trite lines like "I'm a fool for your love."
It's impossible to believe that Parton would be anyone's fool.
The reocrd is a constant battle between Parton's lively, personal voice and the dull, impersonal music behind her. Her band consists of L.A. pop pros like Toto's Jeff Porcaro and David Hungate and ex-Dobbie Brother Jeff Baxter.
Whenever Parton seems to be getting the upper hand over these sleepwalking session players, producer Gary Klein hits her with a wave of strings and backup singers.
Nashville and Los Angeles are full of "country" producers who are completely cut off from country music's truest sources. It has taken outsiders like former folk-rockers Emmy Lou Harris, Rodney Crowe and Levon Helm to rediscover these sources.
These three are making the records that recall the past country glories of the Carter Family, Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams and Dolly Parton herself.