Gram Parsons’ greatest contribution to the world wasn’t “A Song For You.” It wasn’t even “Return of the Grievous Angel.” It was Emmylou Harris, an artist whose gift for interpretation and pearly vocals have been blessing the charts, the radio, and our playlists for the best part of six decades. Since bursting onto the scene as Parsons’ protege in the early ’70s, she’s released dozens of albums, been nominated for an astounding forty-six Grammys. earned a place in the Country Music Hall of Fame, and inspired armies of would-be singer-songwriters to pick up a guitar and start strumming. But no matter how many artists claim her as an influence, there’s only one Emmylou. Here, we doff our hats to her enduring legacy as we look back at the 10 best Emmylou Harris songs of all time.
#10 – Evangeline
Robbie Roberston knew how to write a good tune. He also knew how to write one fast. The night before The Band’s Last Waltz concert, he wrote “Evangeline.” It may have been a rush job, but you’d never guess it from the quality. The next day, Harris and Rick Danko performed it together to the backing of the Band. Martin Scorsese was on hand to immortalize it on tape. It’s a stunning effort… although not quite so sensational as the version Harris would record a couple of years later alongside Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt.
# 9 – Born To Run
“Born To Run” doesn’t find Harris doing her best impression of the Boss, but it does find her in a rockier mood than usual. A head nodding, foot tapping declaration of intent, it’s bold and assertive enough to make even Bruce Springsteen seem a little wimpish. “Nobody going to make me do the things their way,” she insists defiantly. “By the time you figure it out, it’s yesterday.” As the song progress, so does her impatience, culminating in the declaration, “But I don’t need it when I’m old and gray / Yeah, I want it today.” Written by her future husband, Paul Kennerly, it soared to No. 3 on the Billboard Hot Country Singles & Tracks chart on its release in 1981.
# 8 – To Daddy
She might be a fine, fine writer herself, but just like her frequent collaborator, Linda Ronstadt, Harris is at her best when she’s applying her own twist to the lyrics of others. “To Daddy” was written by Dolly Parton, but by the time Parton eventually got round to recording it herself in the 1990s, we’d already lost our hearts to the incredibly sensitive rendition on Harris’ 1977 album, Quarter Moon In A Ten Cent Town. After giving Harris a No.3 hit on Billboard’s Hot Country chart, it remained a set staple for years.
# 7 – Together Again
Harris’ knack for interpretation is out in force on “Together Again.” A decade after country artist Buck Owens took the song to the top of the country charts, Harris did the same. Her version is a little less smokey than Buck’s, but her wispy vocals add just the right amount of vulnerability to this tale of a longed-for reunion with a loved one. The song became her first No. 1 country single; four years later, she teamed up with Owens to record “Play Together Again, Again” in celebration of its success.
# 6 – Pancho and Lefty
Bettering Townes Van Zandt’s original version of “Pancho and Lefty” is an almost impossible task, but Harris comes closer than almost any other artist has. Recorded in 1977 for the album Luxury Liner, she delivers the Texas Troubadours parable of two wayward outlaws with her signature combination of empathy and precision. An undulating guitar and melancholy pedal steel provide the perfect foil to her pure vocals. A few years later, she’d revisit Van Zandt again on a pitch-perfect duet with Don Williams on the 1981 classic, “If I Needed You.”
# 5 – Boulder to Birmingham
Harris found her voice early, but it took her awhile to find her muse. The bulk of her formative recordings consist of covers, but if you scratch around enough, you can still find a few original compositions here and there. “Boulder to Birmingham” from the 1975 album Pieces of the Sky is one of them. An immensely powerful and heartbreakingly mournful tribute to her late, great mentor Gram Parsons, it’s nothing short of gorgeous, with Harris’ plaintiff vocals weaving angelically around the lush strings and melancholy piano. Over forty years later, it’s still one of her most stunning creations.
# 4 – Two More Bottles of Wine
Written by the superbly talented Delbert McClinton, “Two More Bottles of Wine” finds Harris “16,000 miles from the people I know” but feeling “all right because it’s midnight / And I got two more bottles of wine.” There’s heartbreak, there’s whisky, and there’s Emmylou, whose jaunty delivery and carefree attitude took this punchy piece of honky-tonk strutting and stomping all the way to No.1.
# 3 – Wayfaring Stranger
Harris has never stuck to the rule book, but her decision to delve into gospel with the 19th-century spiritual “Wayfaring Stranger” was one of the biggest left-turns of her career. The biggest surprise is just how well it works. Her haunting vocals dip and weave through the lyrics, taking us on a journey just as plaintive as that of the poor soul at the center of the story. Culled from the glorious 1980 album Roses In The Snow, this unlikely hit managed to break the Top Ten in the US and bag Harris a No. 1 in Canada.
# 2 – Sweet Dreams
Donald Gibson wrote “Sweet Dreams,” Patsy Cline popularised it, and Harris scored a No. 1 chart hit with it. Other artists have attempted to repeat her success in the years since, but none have managed it. Only Emmylou, it seems, can sing this ode to failed relationships in the way it was intended, and only Emmylou can turn the misery of heartbreak into such a sweet pleasure, it makes you forget your own.
#1 – Beneath Still Waters
George Jones is widely acknowledged as one of the greatest ever country singers, but even his biggest fans probably weren’t aware of “Beneath Still Waters” until Harris unearthed it from his 1968 album My Country, polished it off, infused it with an air of resigned sadness, and sent it soaring to the top of the country charts. Her vocal performance is staggering, but it’s her gift for interpretation that’s truly remarkable.
Top 10 Emmylou Harris songs article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2021
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