Emmylou Harris: Hard Bargain album review

There are few artists more respected or loved in popular music than Emmylou Harris. At age 63, the Birmingham, Alabama native has seen her reputation as a vocalist and songwriter grow consistently from her first collaborations with Gram Parson in the early 1970s, to her own solo records, to her later collaborations with artists as diverse as Dolly Parton, Neil Young, Daniel Lanois, Conor Oberst, Ryan Adams, and well, the list goes on and on. For a while, it seemed that every other new release featured backing vocals by Emmylou.

Hard Bargain is her first collection of new songs since 2008’s All I Intended To Be. This is a fairly stripped-down affair, with just three musicians, including Harris, making all the music. The other two are producer Jay Joyce and multi-instrumentalist Giles Reaves. Together the trio have produced a beautiful, intimate sound that perfectly showcases Emmylou’s voice and songs.

The album opens with The Road, an ode to the late Gram Parsons. “I can still remember every song you played”, Emmylou sings, and you believe her. Parsons isn’t the only dearly-departed person Parson’s has written about. Darlin’ Kate is a tender farewell to Kate McGarrigle, a friend and frequent collaborator, while My Name Is Emmett Till is a sad, but harrowing account of a 14-year-old black boy who was killed in Mississippi for talking to a white woman.  The incident happened in 1955 but Emmylou makes it sound like it happened yesterday.

New Orleans is a rocked-up tribute to the spirit of that broken city and Big Black Dog lightens the mood with its playful banjo. But it’s on songs like Ron Sexsmith’s Hard Bargain and her own Lonely Girl that Emmylou really shines. She digs deep into the lyrics and when she sings “I’m a lonely girl in a lonely world” you just want to give her a big hug.

The album closes with Jay Joyce’s Cross Yourself. It moves along with a gentle urgency and a mood that Harris’ previous producer, Daniel Lanois, is known for.

Hard Bargain is a simple album…three musicians getting together to play a collection of well-written, heartfelt songs. There’s nothing overly fancy involved, just guitar, bass and drums, with an occasional keyboard or banjo.  But the strength and sincerity of Harris’ songs combined with her beautiful vocals and the sympathetic production makes Hard Bargain another reason to love and respect Emmylou Harris.

Marty Duda

Click here to listen to The Road from Hard Bargain: