Emmylou Harris’ Wrecking Ball, Revisited
By the time she was 48 years old, Emmylou Harris had lived a life or two. She’d issued 16 solo records, toured the world a few times over, and fronted a swinging country-rock ensemble called the Hot Band. She’d been a leading presence in a wave of counterculture-adjacent singer-songwriters who had spawned multiple generations of creative disciples, with Gillian Welch, the Chicks, Sheryl Crow, Conor Oberst, and Margo Price among those in her direct lineage. She’d raised two daughters and gone through three divorces; she’d experienced the death of a parent and the shocking loss of her mentor and creative soulmate. Everybody who worked with her seemed to love her, and it showed in the extensive roster of credits she’d earned as a collaborator across her multi-decade career.
But for all her high esteem, Harris was in need of a new challenge—and so, here came Wrecking Ball. Released in late September of 1995, Wrecking Ball is a staggering work that defied expectations for what a middle-aged woman should be doing with her time. The record drew Harris away from the gaudier side of Nashville and the cynical side of adulthood, pulling inspiration from the life Harris had lived with contributions from a handful of those she’d met along the way. To some listeners, it was a betrayal by their reedy Queen of the Silver Dollar, who’d once happily offered heaps of twangy, mild-mannered songs; for others, it was a refreshing start to a new chapter, proof that a woman’s artistry had no expiration date. For Harris, Wrecking Ball became a place to be a version of herself that she’d never put to tape before.
With her light, flexible voice, Harris is one of the definitive team players of American music—she’s everywhere, if you know where to look. Hear her with Bob Dylan and Neil Young, with Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt; with Mark Knopfler, George Jones, Willie Nelson, or even in the low harmony of the riverbed siren song on screen in O Brother, Where Art Thou? That’s her, joining the Band for “Evangeline” in The Last Waltz, and bouncing with Bonnie Raitt and Little Feat on The Midnight Special. Outside of her many guest appearances, Harris kept up a steady career of her own, issuing sublime folk-leaning records in the ’70s and chasing them with more squarely country material over the next decade. But, by the mid-1990s, Harris was starting to hit dead ends with country radio, a platform that has a particularly ferocious hold over the genre’s metrics for success.
Harris’ 1993 album, Cowgirl’s Prayer, kept pace with trends with a couple of rock-tinged numbers and crystal-clear production, but it had no Top 40 singles, and peaked at No. 34 on the Billboard charts. Though she wasn’t in a full-on flop mode, Harris sensed that she needed to recalibrate. “It was obvious after all [the label’s] effort that country radio was not interested in me—I was too old, or whatever,” Harris once said.
Her label, Elektra, encouraged her to consider working with a producer who could reroute her for her next album. “They basically came back to me and said, ‘We’re going to back you no matter what you do. Do you have any ideas?’” she recalled to the Los Angeles Times in 2014. Rather than enlisting a Nashville sharpshooter, Harris turned to Daniel Lanois, a Canadian technician who had moved from producing Raffi records onto some of the biggest rock albums of the 1980s, including blockbusters by U2, Peter Gabriel, and Bob Dylan.
At his Kingsway Studios in New Orleans’ French Quarter, Lanois impressed and flabbergasted artists with an unconventional setup that involved unfixed gear in a weird old house, and a recording engineer named Trina Shoemaker who took no bullshit behind the board. Whatever Lanois was doing, his production work often earned a charge of being atmospheric, as though he were capable of summoning pressure systems through his manipulation of knobs and faders. Pushing reverb and swirling backdrops, he created vast soundscapes where artists and listeners could both lose themselves.
More than his impressive production credits on U2’s The Joshua Tree or Peter Gabriel’s So, it was Lanois’ 1989 solo album Acadie, with its combination of relaxed French-Canadian folk music and moody electronic ambiance, that intrigued Harris. She approached the recording process with an inherent sense of trust in her producer, and in turn, Lanois seemed to sense the careful guiding hand that Harris’ work needed: not more of the same genre material that had become restrictive, nor a pivot into the world of stadium-filling stardom. He could create an auditory depth of field that reflected Harris’ own eclecticism, matching her wide-ranging narrative appetite with subtle arrangements that freed her from the narrow constraints of country music.
Harris’ voice is rich and smoky across Wrecking Ball, wrapped in Lanois’ loose and spacious arrangements. She smolders in her natural register, keeping light without pressing herself into awkward highs. A sparkle of guitar and tumble of drums opens the album in the Lanois-penned “Where Will I Be.” As Harris floats over her lines, wondering about her cosmic fate, the song hints at the gospel hymns that had worked their way into the folk and country canons through the Carter Family and Bill Monroe. Lanois brought on U2 drummer Larry Mullen Jr. to back Harris, and the tasteful touches he brings to Wrecking Ball frame Harris’ voice without overshadowing her presence.
If the album gives a whole snapshot of Harris making a statement for herself, the individual tracks tell their own little stories about Harris and the prevailing emotional forces in her life. Old friends appear throughout, occasionally doubling up. Steve Earle, who wrote “Goodbye,” pops up on “Every Grain of Sand” and “Sweet Old World.” Sisters Anna and Kate McGarrigle, longtime Harris favorites, harmonize on closing number “Waltz Across Texas Tonight,” which Harris co-wrote with frequent collaborator Rodney Crowell. Harris picked up “Sweet Old World” from Lucinda Williams, who showed up to play guitar on the Wrecking Ball recording.
After Harris had joined singer-songwriter Julie Miller to duet on Miller’s “All My Tears” in 1993, she re-cut the song herself for Wrecking Ball. Lanois’ touch is apparent in the muted synthetic churn that carries the song, which Harris foils with airy vocalizations at its close. In “Goin’ Back to Harlan,” written by Anna McGarrigle, Harris rubs elbows with familiar characters, recalling her own position as a sort of folkloric totem. The tune summons folksong figures that populated Harris’ teenage days listening to Pete Seeger and Joan Baez albums: Fair Ellen, cuckoo birds, Barbara Allen, the bells of Rhymney. Harris lightly lifts her voice in the chorus, as if she knows that the relief of returning to a familiar place is worth whatever devils await her there. Any claims that Harris had strayed from her roots of honoring traditional artistry, which she’d done with so many ballads in her previous work, dissolve in McGarrigle’s homage.
Though Harris was an established light among the singer-songwriter set by the time she made Wrecking Ball, she’d nonetheless maintained her voracious appetite for songs by new artists, borrowing “Orphan Girl” from a Nashville up-and-comer in her late twenties named Gillian Welch. Harris’ father, whose career in the Marine Corps informed her itinerant childhood, had died in 1993, and that particular grief peeks through the dulcimer and tambourine that give the song a woodsy, shambolic feel. (The following year, Welch would offer her clear, unembellished take as the opener of her debut album Revival.)
On the title track, Harris found a coded statement of purpose from Neil Young, who harmonized with her on the recording in addition to adding backing vocals and harmonica to “Sweet Old World.” Like Dylan, Young had also had a rough go of the Reagan years, and like Dylan, had a turnaround in 1989. Bookended with acoustic and electric versions of “Rockin’ in the Free World,” Freedom liberated Young from his overstuffed era. Young’s “Wrecking Ball” sounds like something the bartender turns on with the lights, and a look that says it’s time to move along. But Harris transformed the song into a transcendental invocation, opening it with a gauzy haze of guitar that feels like a lifting mist. “My life’s an open book/You read it on the radio,” the song begins, with Harris sounding like a mystical presence as she promises to wear something pretty in white.
Like Young, Harris had lived her own version of strangers absorbing her life’s story through the airwaves, though hers involved a particularly unwieldy presence: the specter of Gram Parsons, a figurehead of “cosmic American music” who died in September of 1973 as the embodiment of burning out rather than fading away. Parsons sometimes wore a bedazzled suit designed by famed rodeo tailor Nudie Cohn, who bedecked him with embroidered icons of his favorite vices and vexations: cannabis, naked women, a Fender Telecaster, ascendant flames, assorted pills, a couple of crosses, poppies as shorthand for morphine and heroin. For better and for worse, Harris’ life wouldn’t have been the same without that rowdy Roman candle of a man, who wisely recruited her to sing with him after a tip from his Byrds bandmate Chris Hillman. She joined him on his debut solo album, 1973’s GP, and on the road in his Fallen Angels band. Parsons had cheated death more than once by the time he’d encountered Harris, but their time together was short.
Parsons died at 26, topping off years of substance misuse with a final flush of tequila and morphine. Harris was left behind, and though Parsons had not quite been a reliable presence, he was still her main tether to the music that illuminated her life. She later credited Linda Ronstadt with being the first person who sought to comfort her at the time, which ultimately sealed their lifelong friendship. Harris and Parsons had become such an inimitable pair that their separation became a defining event in Harris’ life.
Harris fulfilled Parsons’ wish for fleshing out duets that recalled the iconic power of George Jones and Tammy Wynette. The pair seemed unstoppable, their voices matched for one another. Gossip abounded about their preternatural closeness as singing partners—purportedly sparking discontent from Gretchen Parsons, Gram’s wife, who had plenty of other grievances with her badly behaved spouse—but the official record is that they kept it professional and platonic. “We were not romantically involved…but I do believe that if he had lived beyond the ripe old age of almost 27 that, possibly, we would have become involved,” Harris conceded in 2000. Parsons may have been the irreverent flamethrower, but Harris was a leveling force, meeting his outrageous affection for overindulgence with a beatifically even keel. He wouldn’t have been the same without her, either.
Though Harris found her passion for music through the folk revival of the early 1960s, she admitted that she’d perceived country music of the same era to be rougher and less refined, more politically conservative than her taste. She credited Parsons with helping her see the beautiful, raw heart of country music, which he’d accomplished through the boundary-busting country-rock records he’d made with the Byrds and Flying Burrito Brothers. Harris seemed to turn her newfound X-ray vision into a superpower over the subsequent years, divining new sentiments from songs by Chuck Berry, Bruce Springsteen, the Louvin Brothers, Shel Silverstein, and scores more.
She exercises that gaze as she draws out the emotional undercurrents of the songs on Wrecking Ball, especially in the flexing tension of “Deeper Well.” Harris channels both the eerie rounds of pre-war Appalachian ballads and flashes of modernity for a reverberating cut that conveys an unquenchable thirst laced with a little sense of sin. The song resurrects a line from “Where Will I Be” about “addiction stayed on tight like a glove.” Here, the image bears the weight of a looming threat. Though the simile is credited to Lanois, it’s difficult not to hear a sort of resonance in the secondhand impact that addiction had on Harris’ life. A flare of electric guitar scorches the space between verses, a flame licking upward in suggestion of even darker depths.
Grief and loss appear in “Goodbye” and “Sweet Old World,” both of which feel hitched to a more general sense of parting sadness. The softly restless “Goodbye” stands out on its own merit with its regretful refrain, but Harris was, in some sense, doing a favor to the down-and-out Steve Earle. He’d written that song and the rest of 1995’s Train a Comin’ while completing a court-ordered rehab program, and the LP was the first he’d made after kicking heroin (Harris sang on two songs from the album). Lucinda Williams’ “Sweet Old World,” meanwhile, was another heartfelt addition that Williams had recorded as the title track to her fourth LP in 1992. Working together in the studio, Lanois encouraged Harris to allow Williams to lead the song at a slower pace. With that direction, the song became an even softer tune than Williams’ barroom-friendly original—which was already a feat by Williams, considering that the song is about a suicide. As Harris enumerates some of the lovely things about life on Earth, it almost sounds like a lullaby.
Wrecking Ball hits a high that unfurls as a psychedelic storm in Jimi Hendrix’s “May This Be Love,” where Lanois’ atmospheric qualifier finally roars forward. His electric guitar solos are bolts of lightning branching outward against the backdrop of percussion and distorted electric guitar gnarls. As she drifts over lines about troubles evaporating, Harris sounds as though she’s basking in the ambient warmth of loving relationships that can only reveal itself with time—the kinds of long-view perspectives that Hendrix, Parsons, and several of their peers never got to see.
Harris, being a woman in the music industry and the world at large, was well aware of the way that numbers could be used against her to assign value: her age, her body measurements, the sizes of checks she earned, how many men she’d loved, the number of records she’d sold. But because of the circumstances of her gender, the warmth of her lasting friendships, and the thoroughly proven quality of her work, Harris also knew that those numbers ultimately amount to nothing. What sits at the heart of Wrecking Ball is the accomplished thrill of running up that hill, no matter who’s watching.
Wrecking Ball wasn’t a betrayal or a denial of any other version of Emmylou Harris, neither a reinvention nor a revision of her history. Harris didn’t set out to change her story or set a new standard for the next century’s singer-songwriters. She was breaking through to something else entirely: herself.