By the mid-60s Country music was in trouble. Clearly, Rock N' Roll was here to stay. The kids weren't buying Country records and neither were their parents. Country was being pushed to the peripheral. So the marketing geniuses in Nashville conducted a survey. But rather than ask folks what they liked about Country and focus on that, they approached the thing ass backwards and wanted to know what people found objectionable. Answer: Twangy guitars and whiney singers. In short order, a legion of steel guitarist were sent out to pasture. The guitars that remained were toned down. And just to make sure everyone heard the change, those weak guitars were buried under an avalanche of strings. The raw voices that sang life's sagas were replaced by slick singers with pop leanings. Countrypolitan was born. You'd think such a wanton dive into M.O.R. mediocrity would be severely punished. But no. Sales went through the roof which only encouraged the Nashville powers to keep producing this garbage. It wasn't until the mid-70's, and the whole "Outlaw" movement, that Country regained its senses and artistic merit.
Conversely, there were some who took what they like about Country and passed it through a Rock siphon. Ironically, they provided the template that carried Country through the '80s and '90s. One of the first groups to record their Country leanings was a late edition of the Byrds, with keyboardist/guitarist Gram Parsons. When Parsons' unhappy tenure with the Byrds was up he pursued his Country Rock leanings with the short lived Flying Burrito Brothers. After that, Parsons went solo releasing "G.P." For his next effort, "Grievous Angel," Parsons set out to find a female singer for duets. Enter Emmylou Harris, who had started her career as a Folk singer in the D.C. area. They were introduced through a mutual friend (some sources say it was ex-Byrd Chris Hillman while others claim Burrito Brother Rick Roberts was responsible).
In the process of recording the critically acclaimed "Grievous Angel" and touring, Harris, (who had been previously married and had a daughter) and Parsons became lovers. But sadly, Parsons soon died of "drug toxicity," from prolonged use, on September 19th, '73, in a Yucca Valley hospital. As a result, Harris became committed to living out he late lover's musical vision.
From a commercial standpoint, '70s Country Rock was no sure thing. Countless bands and solo performers, with immense talent, came and went barely notching any recognition - think Rick Nelson and his Stone Canyon Band. Only a Creedence Clearwater Revival and the Eagles, both clearly more Rock than Country, made a lasting impression. Others, including the Charlie Daniels Band and the Outlaws, were able to garner a hit or two. The reason for the lack to success was fairly easy to figure out. For radio airplay you had to be Country or Rock. You couldn't ride the line. It confused people. Actually, it didn't confuse anybody but narrow minded music programmers. It was tough when Country radio (or what passed for it) put you in the Rock slot while Rock radio saw you as Country. Despite this, Harris built a loyal fan base through live performances and a handful of excellent records. Her Hot Band served as the training ground for some of County's biggest '80s stars including Ricky Skaggs, Vince Gill and songwriter/producer/singer Rodney Crowell. But what made Harris special was her diversity. She could go from campy ('50s chestnut "Mister Sandman" or the Rosalind Russell/Marilyn Monroe gem "Diamonds Are A Girls Best Friend") to updating Country standards like Hank Snow's "I'm Moving On" to kicking it out on Crowell's "It's Only Rock N' Roll."
As her career progressed Harris veered toward Country producing raw, emotional albums with just enough twists to keep Country radio at bay. But from the mid-70's to the mid 80s, Harris was among Country Rock's finest proponents. She also served as a major influence on Country's New Traditionalist movement in the early/mid-80s.
A good way to get introduced to Emmylou Harris is "Profile: Best Of Emmylou Harris" and "Profile: II." "Profile" is earthier of the two and contains a great rendition of Chuck Berry's ("You Can Never Tell) C'Est La Vie" and the vibrant "Two More Bottles Of Wine." "II" is slicker and sounds less cluttered (better production). This set includes the upbeat "Born To Run" and a live version of "I'm Movin' On," which was originally released on "Last Date," an incredible album.
Harris fans have an affection for "Pieces Of The Sky," "Luxury Liner" and "Evangeline." All are very good but Harris Rocks her best on "White Shoes." The '83 album has the forceful "Drivin' Wheel," the plaintive "In My Dreams," and the yearning "White Shoes." Still, it's the two Crowell compositions, "It's Only Rock 'N' Roll" and "Baby, Better Start Turnin' 'Em Down," that put this one over the top. Both are great songs and Harris gives them the emotional depth and force to bring them home. She also does a nice turn on "Diamonds Are A Girls Best Friend." The only glaring err is trying to make a song out of Donna Summer's disco romp "On The Radio."