To Emmylou, the Fleeing Ghost Records’ compilation of LA-based artists covering the songs of Emmylou Harris, features eleven reverential performances. Each of the largely unknown artists collected here do a fine job of recasting her songs, both those well-known and those that run a little deeper, in a contemporary framework without sacrificing the heart and soul of the original. Not surprisingly, the primary focus throughout is on each artist’s voice, something for which Harris has long been known both on her own, as a collaborator and as one of the finest interpreters of Americana.
Fittingly then, opening track “Timberline” from Harris’ 1985 release The Ballad of Sally Rose is performed by the Silver Lake Chorus. Unfettered by musical accompaniment, the chorus of voices help establish the primary focus of the collection from the start. And while there are plenty of fine instrumental performances throughout, the over-arching element running through these songs – performed in styles ranging from straight country to contemplative indie rock – is the purity of the human voice. And in this case, the “voice” in question is that of Harris as a songwriter, something that is occasionally lost due to her high-profile collaborations and the immaculate nature of her voice.
By compiling a number of local, barely-known artists, To Emmylou helps to remove the preconceived notions often associated with well-known artists covering the material of others. With little to no expectations in place aside from a familiarity with Harris oeuvre, the collection proves a pleasant surprise full of sympathetic performances that remain just true enough to the origins to retain a certain amount of reverence, but distinct enough to be perceived as their own creation. Burning Jet Black in particular stand out, recasting “Six White Cadillacs” as a furious garage rocker that stands in sharp contrast to the shuffling country of Harris’ own version on 2011’s Hard Bargain.
The Elliott Smith-like vocals of Sandbox on their rendition of “Clocks” offers a haunting amalgamation of Smith’s own quavering, melancholic pop and sepia-tinged Americana courtesy of the ghostly banjo and mandolin lines wending in and out of the track. It’s one of several instances that betrays the project’s indie rock roots. Yet the mere fact that a decided country artist like Harris would have such crossover appeal speaks volumes to her significance and relevance for contemporary artists of all genres. Her songs’ ability to translate into nearly any stylistic context further attests to the overall strength of the source material.
While the collection leans heavily on lesser-known material, the two most prominent songs – “Boulder to Birmingham” and “Red Dirt Girl” – are given appropriately straightforward readings that hold just enough of the original to play more as homage than pastiche. The former in particular, performed by Tall Tales & The Silver Lining, has an eerie air of Gram Parsons in both the recording as a whole and the vocal timbre. It’s an affecting tribute to both Harris and the late country rock figurehead who helped her get started in the industry she would come to reign over.
To Emmylou offers a number of fine interpretations of some of the best songwriting, Americana or otherwise, of the last nearly half-century. Whether or not listeners are familiar with Harris’ work either with Parsons, her Hot Band or on her many solo and collaborative releases, they will find much to like on this solid collection of both songs and performances that deserve wider recognition.
You can buy To Emmylou on Amazon.