(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 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:
- The Ballad of Sally Rose
- Rhythm Guitar
- I Think I Love Him
- Heart to Heart
- Woman Walk the Line
- Bad News
- Long Tall Sally Rose
- White Line
- Diamond in My Crown
- The Sweetheart of the Rodeo
- Sweet Chariot