The Essentials: Emmylou Harris – The Ballad of Sally Rose

(As noted in my first Essentials entry, this is an occasional series in which I spotlight albums that, in my estimation, everyone should experience at least once in their life.)

In February 1985. Emmylou Harris released her 11th album, The Ballad of Sally Rose. I bought it on vinyl on the 17th of that month, a Sunday, and liked it so much that, a few weeks later, I picked it up on cassette so that I could listen to it while driving my new old car, a ’79 Chevette. I also scored tickets to see her at the Academy of Music in Philly around the same time. In my Of Concerts Past piece about that show, I mentioned that it’s not necessarily her best work. It is, however, one of her most ambitious efforts. A true flawed masterpiece.

A concept album inspired by her relationship with Gram Parsons, the songs – written by Emmy and her husband at the time, Paul Kennerly – chart the story of a young woman who falls for a charismatic singer only to be wooed away from him by the promise of stardom. And just when she realizes her mistake and sets out to rejoin him…he dies in a car crash. Bad news, huh?

The scan, by the way, is of the flyer handed out at that 1985 concert, and it explains the story in a bit more depth.

As with many concept albums, the set’s weakness comes from having to tell a cohesive story over a succession of songs that also need to be able to stand alone. While the music remains strong throughout, lyrically a few tracks fall short. The flip side is this: Many are just plain great. The title cut, which kicks off the album, for instance, would have been at home on any of Emmy’s non-concept albums:

As I note in that Of Concerts Past piece, “Rhythm Guitar” and “Woman Walk the Line” are memorable, too. Likewise, the rest of Side One – up until “Bad News,” which doesn’t quite work. Side Two has its moments, as well, and the closing “Sweet Chariot” is sheer genius.

Here’s a YouTube playlist of the album in full:

Side One:

  1. The Ballad of Sally Rose
  2. Rhythm Guitar
  3. I Think I Love Him
  4. Heart to Heart
  5. Woman Walk the Line
  6. Bad News
  7. Timberline

Side Two:

  1. Long Tall Sally Rose
  2. White Line
  3. Diamond in My Crown
  4. The Sweetheart of the Rodeo
  5. KSOS
  6. Sweet Chariot

The Essentials: 10,000 Maniacs’ Our Time in Eden

(As noted in my first Essentials entry, this is an occasional series in which I spotlight albums that, in my estimation, everyone should experience at least once in their life.)

Natalie Merchant’s reasonably priced mega-box set is due out next month, though my pre-ordered copy is already in the UPS pipeline. I’ll have more to say about it after I receive it, no doubt, but one thing I can say is:

I’m saddened that the same love and affection shown to Natalie’s solo career hasn’t been applied to her days with her old group, 10,000 Maniacs.

Don’t get me wrong: the 2004 2-CD collection Campfire Songs: The Popular, Obscure and Unknown Recordings of 10,000 Maniacs is an excellent compilation. But that early era of the Maniacs (who are still a working, and excellent, band) deserves more – at the least, a series of official concert recordings, given that they were such an incredible live band. (Unplugged, while a fine set, doesn’t do them justice.) I’d love nothing more than to relive their short set at WXPN’s Five-Star Night in 1992…and given that three of those songs turned up as bonus tracks the 1993 British “Candy Everybody Wants” CD single, one wonders why the entire show wasn’t released. The same goes for their 1988 set at Sadler Wells Theatre in London, which was recorded by BBC 6 Radio, plus others.

Which is all beside the point of this “Essentials” plug, I suppose. Forgive the rant.

Anyway, from their first independent releases to their last CD, Unplugged, the Natalie-era 10K Maniacs never released a bum album. But – when it comes to stone-cold classics – two have more than stood the test of time: their 1987 breakthrough, In My Tribe, and their 1992 studio swan song, Our Time in Eden. At some to-be-determined time in the future, I’ll revisit the former; today, however, I’m spotlighting the latter.To my ears, it’s a perfect set. As I explained in my recap of 1992, it’s “everything I love about music: It’s poppy, rocky, bright, light and deep, with melodies that soar and lyrics that, if one listens to them, mean more than most. The juxtaposition of the jangly with the profound is something I adore.” I’d simply add that the addition of the horns and woodwinds from the J.B.’s (James Brown’s band) was a masterstroke, adding a depth to the proceedings. The Maniacs jumped into the deep end of the pool by adding the JB Horns, in other words, and swam with ease.

The album opens with the mesmerizing “Noah’s Dove,” which may well feature Natalie’s finest-ever vocal – or, more likely, one of her best.

It also includes the once-upon-a-long-ago radio and MTV staples of “These Are Days” and “Candy Everybody Wants” –

Other highlights include the fast-tempo “Few and Far Between” and sweeping “Stockton Gala Days” –

One additional thought: The album should have a warning label affixed to it. One listen will beget two and, then, three, four and more – as just happened to me. So, be forewarned.

Here’s the album as a whole:

The Songs:

  1. Noah’s Dove
  2. These Are Days
  3. Eden
  4. Few and Far Between
  5. Stockton Gala Days
  6. Gold Rush Brides
  7. Jezebel
  8. How You’ve Grown
  9. Candy Everybody Wants
  10. Tolerance
  11. Circle Dream
  12. If You Intend
  13. I’m Not the Man

Today’s Top 5: As Brought to You by Karrie

In the first of what I hope to be an ongoing, occasional feature, I’m turning today’s Top 5 over to someone else – in this case, the Irish singer-songwriter Karrie, whose 2016 album Perpetual Motion I reviewed a few weeks back. She released the single, “I Don’t Hear You,” a few weeks back, too.

As detailed elsewhere, she got a late start in the music business, swapping horse training for singing after the economy tanked in 2009 -, though you wouldn’t know it from her music. (More on that here.) Job change aside, she still maintains her farm – and took time out of making hay (literally) to field my questions.

Did you sing around the home prior to transitioning to music? You have such a wonderful voice, I can’t imagine that you didn’t share it with, at the least, family and friends – and horses, for that matter. 

I come from a family of nine children. (I’m last in the line, the youngest.) Everyone can sing. When it’s not an unusual thing, it’s a given. We always sing at family get togethers. Having a big family puts you in line. My older sisters and brothers pretty much chose what music the younger ones heard. Joni Mitchell’s song “Carey” is on her 1971 album Blue; I was nicknamed after it.

I won’t ask your age, but it sounds like you were in your mid-30s when you shifted to music.

I was born in ’75 . That in mind, my influences were well embedded in my head by the time I wrote my very first song at 34, “Stay Away.” (It’s on my first album, Jelly Legged).

That first open-mic night – about how many people were in the audience? What song did you sing?

I don’t really like to recall my first gig . I think it was an ill chosen venue in Cork city. An open-mic night for rock music . Think I bombed!

About “I Don’t Hear You” – it’s such a wondrous piece. What inspired it? 

“I Don’t Hear You” is a song I wasn’t very careful about writing. Its content must be a delayed reaction to continuous pressures. Kinda like getting numb to something.

I hear what I imagine are several influences in it. The opening bass (as short as it is) reminds me of the opening to “Wichita Lineman,” for example, and the horns conjure the Style Council (my wife hears it, too, but we’re also Paul Weller fans; or she’s just saying so to humor me). Both add to my delight with the song. Were those nods intentional? Happy accidents?

I really love hearing about what people get from my music . This is funny because “Wichita Lineman” is right up there in my most favorite songs. An interesting note on this might be that I don’t write the instrumental music for my songs bar having some ideas here and there. I mostly write a cappella, probably 99% of the time. I do make sure my song is complete when I give it over to “wardrobe.” It’s a selfish thing I guess. Jimmy Smyth produced here. I don’t tell him how to play guitar.

——————–

And, with the Q&A out of the way, here’s today’s Top 5: As Brought to You by Karrie. They are not (necessarily) her all-time favorites, just songs that she loves –

1) Joni Mitchell – “Carey.” My memory of it is I was very small  My sisters would pick me up  in their arms and dance with me singing along to Joni. Joni Mitchell influences me now in almost everything I write.

2) John Martyn & Danny Thompson – “Sweet Little Mystery” from Live In Dublin. John Martyn lived in Ireland. He was alive here and I didn’t I know how important his music would be to me. I was still training horses when I heard him first on the radio and thought this guy is out on his own. It very nearly made me turn from horses years before I did. I wish I had sought him out. I think It would have made a very big difference to my then poor decision making. It still bothers me that I ignored my own self wanting to go hear him live. Such a regret.

3) Elvis Costello – “Brilliant Mistake.” This song is like a movie. It’s perfect in every way.

4) Rickie Lee Jones – “Flying Cowboys.” This, along with its video, is also so perfect. (Unfortunately, the video isn’t on YouTube. But the song is…)

5) Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers – “Don’t Come Around Here No More.”

And one bonus…

6) Thom Moore & Midnight Well – “Soldier On.”