When she was 16 years old and dreaming of a career as a musician, Emmylou Harris sought advice in a letter to a role model of hers, Pete Seeger. She was worried, she confided to the legendary folk singer, that her upbringing had been too sheltered, too full of contentment. With baggage like that, how could she ever hope to sing convincingly about suffering and hardship?
Don't trouble yourself, came Seeger's reply; suffering and hardship will find you soon enough.
The crack that developed in Harris' voice, familiar to her fans, suggests that Seeger knew what he was talking about. Life lived means life suffered, a universal truth captured in so much of Harris' music over the years and one that emerges achingly in that signature catch in her throat. It conveys, as no other performer does, the sense of what is barely bearable, the sound of private but uncontainable regret and loss. "Sorrow is constant and the joys are brief," she sings in her existential "The Pearl." "The seasons come and bring no sweet relief."
This week Harris, now 60, releases a four-CD (and one-DVD) retrospective that spans a luminous, ever-evolving, genre-defying 40-year career, which has earned her commercial and critical success and almost reverential stature among other musicians.
Songbird: Rare Tracks & Forgotten Gems (Rhino) confirms the weakness she has for sad songs, but melancholy is hardly the unifying spirit of either this collection or of her artistry. The totality of Harris as a performer is something far grander and more complex, representing equal parts clearsightedness, self-reproach, endurance, humility and assurance. She's like a survivor of pestilence who emerges stronger on the other side, but seared by the experience all the same. Resolutely incapable of sentimentality or platitude, she manages the trick of heartbreak and affirmation all at once.
Harris has flourished because of an authenticity that pierces through the artifice that separates us from the full measure of our humanity. Her singing conveys a gravity and a timelessness that is anchoring. Even when she is lighthearted, Harris never seems capable of the frivolous. Despite her itinerant childhood with a military father, Harris creates music that feels as rooted as the ground, distilling what is essential when so much else in popular culture strikes us as ephemeral.
Songbird is no "best of" collection. Harris released those sorts of compilations years ago - too soon by decades, it turns out, given the astounding, recharging series of CDs that began with 1995's haunting Wrecking Ball when Harris was nearing 50 and continuing most recently with last year's All the Roadrunning, her rich collaboration with Mark Knopfler, the genius songwriter and guitarist behind Dire Straits. Included in that span was the wondrous, Grammy award-winning Red Dirt Girl, which showed off the underappreciated songwriting skills of a musician known for interpreting and championing the works of others. Like Bob Dylan, one of many performers who sought her as a duet partner over the years, Harris keeps demonstrating that she won't be a prisoner of her early work because the older she gets, the more she finds to express about love (romantic and otherwise), yearning and memory.
Songbird may not be the place for the uninitiated to start with Harris. She describes it as a collection of personal favorites, including overlooked numbers and unreleased recordings. In any case, it serves as roadmap to her remarkable career, starting even before that fabled day in 1971 when country-rocker Gram Parsons plucked her from a Washington club and made her his vocal accompanist. After Parsons' premature death in 1973 (which still hovers darkly over much of her music and inspired her grief-stricken anthem, "From Boulder to Birmingham"), she replaced - and eclipsed - him as the pioneering spirit behind a sophisticated country-rock hybrid, what is often called alt-country. Some of her music veers more explicitly toward folk, bluegrass and traditional country. In truth, no category really fully contains her, other than purely American.
Two of her duets with Parsons, featuring her soaring harmonies, are in Songbird, along with recordings with some of the many others who have collaborated with her over the years, most notably Linda Ronstadt and Dolly Parton, Johnny Cash, The Pretenders, Sheryl Crow and Steve Earle, one of her favorite songwriters. (I wish she had included their heartrending duet of his "Goodbye," which you should treat yourself to on YouTube.) But the box set also travels the distance of her solo career, from the earnestness and openheartedness of her earlier recordings, to her rollicking work with her great Hot Band (featuring Rodney Crowell on guitar), to the ethereal beauty and atmospherics of her recent CDs.
The set captures the full flowering of an artist who emerged from the shadow of a mentor to discover, year by year and decade by decade, new ways to test herself. Her pacing and expressiveness have become both bolder and more subtle, showing off the confidence of a performer who has succeeded by not bending herself to the mandates of commercial success. Her voice never had the crystalline purity of her great friend, Ronstadt. It has creaks and scratches, which, rather than avoid, Harris plumbs for the deepest turns of meaning and nuance. Its very imperfection somehow resolves into veracity and authority.
The innocence that was present when she first broke through in the early '70s is gone, replaced not by hardness but a hard-earned, yet generous wisdom. Harris must have accepted Seeger's dictum long ago, but whatever pain she has endured she turned into a salve for the rest of us.