Emmylou Harris has always had a mesmerizingly beautiful voice, but too often a discreet distance has crept between her and her material, as if she were acknowledging that she was singing about someone else. After spending most of her life singing other people's songs, Harris has finally opened up. As a result, her new album, "The Ballad of Sally Rose" (Warner Bros. 9 25205-1), is filled with the revealingly personal connections her music has lacked in the past.
After making 11 albums in nine years with her producer-husband Brian Ahern, Harris ended that partnership to begin a new one with songwriter Paul Kennerley, who wrote the "country-opera" "White Mansions." During a year and a half off the road, she and Kennerley wrote 13 songs that used Harris' thinly disguised alter ego, Sally Rose, to form another "country-opera."
Kennerley's attempts in the liner notes and in the lyrics to make these songs fit into a narrative aren't really convincing. In fact, the numbers work much better as individual memory and confession songs. Harris may insist in interviews that she is not Sally Rose, but she protests too much. There are just too many parallels between the 37-year-old singer, who grew up near Washington, and her fictional character.
Sally Rose is a nickname Harris' manager gave her. As a fictional character, Sally is a young unknown when she meets a famous country singer who hires her as a rhythm guitarist and backing singer. Eventually they become lovers, and Sally becomes a well-known singer. When he dies tragically, Sally carries on his legacy by singing his songs wherever she goes.
This story resembles Harris' relationship with Gram Parsons too closely to ignore. Parsons, who pioneered country-rock with the Byrds' "Sweetheart of the Rodeo" and the Flying Burrito Brothers' "Gilded Palace of Sin," featured Harris prominently on his two solo albums before he died mysteriously in the Joshua Tree Desert in 1973. Harris has been singing his songs ever since.
One doesn't need to know Harris' biography, however, to recognize the heartfelt sense of loss in "White Line" or the determination to recover in "Diamond in My Crown." Riding the twang of Nashville's top progressive pickers, "White Line" perks along like the cars described as Harris cries out, "White line took my baby -- led him down that dark highway." Her voice wavers with sorrow but never falters as the song carries her along to the resolution, "If my wheels keep turning, gonna roll that white line away."
Harris' voice is at its translucent, quivering best on the gospel ballad "Diamond in My Crown." One can hear both the reluctance and relief of confession as she gives in and admits, "I have wasted all that life has laid before me." She gives another ballad, "The Sweetheart of the Rodeo" (an unmistakable reference to Parsons), a perfect twist of irony as she describes the rites of success turned hollow by the death of a lover.
Harris draws out the romantic devotion of the slow waltz, "Heart to Heart," with lush, sustained syllables. She makes "Woman Walk the Line," a honky-tonk "drinking-my-sorrows-away" song, work from a female perspective -- insisting that she just wants to be left alone at the bar.
Throughout, Harris gets excellent playing from Rodney Crowell's Cherry Bombs, her own road band and friends such as Waylon Jennings and Albert Lee. The band rocks out on "Bad News" and lends some acoustic bluegrass picking on "Long Tall Sally Rose." The choir of Dolly Parton, Linda Rondstadt, Vince Gill, Gail Davies and Harris lends a sense of solace as well as gorgeous harmonies to the songs about death.
The album's most moving song is "Sweet Chariot," which thoroughly reworks several gospel sources with a new melody and an explicit reference to Joshua Tree. Harris' voice manages to keep a light, airy timbre even as she gives an utterly forlorn confession that her heart is chained to sorrow.
If Harris relies on country's traditional gospel roots, Deborah Allen is one of those "country" singers who are virtually indistinguishable from pop singers anywhere. Allen is based in Nashville and has had several top-10 country hits. Her hook-laden compositions have been recorded by such pop and soul singers as Sheena Easton and Diana Ross, as well as Loretta Lynn and Tammy Wynette.
If her new album, "Let Me Be the First" (RCA, AHL 1-5318), has little to do with country music, it is an admirable bit of pop craft nonetheless. Allen has a big, smooth soprano that fills out her catchy melodies. The title tune has an arrangement and vocal that unerringly resemble a Cyndi Lauper ballad, while "I Can't Stand It" resembles a bouncy Lauper dance tune. "You Do It" has the pop-soul feel of a Lionel Richie; "Please Don't Fall in Love" has an appealing chorus of overlapping vocal harmonies.
The album is full of "hot hits" radio fodder, and Allen may well be a huge pop star before this year is out. It won't really matter in the long run, though, because the songs she writes with her husband-producer Rafe VanHoy are prefabricated to fit any singer, any situation. The songs lack the personal commitment and confession that separate the lasting artists from the transient stars.