The songs are uniformly excellent and written by some of the most famed songwriters in music. As Emmylou has demonstrated time and time again throughout her career, her taste in music is nothing if not eclectic. The songwriters on this album include artists as varied as Merle Haggard, Shel Silverstein, Dolly Parton, and John Lennon and Paul McCartney. While covering so many disparate styles seems like it could make for a awkward mishmash, it sounds terrific. Emmylou puts her own unique spin on each of these songs and fully makes them her own, so when a Dolly Parton song is followed by a Beatles cover, it somehow sounds completely natural.
Album opener “Bluebird Wine”, written by a then-unknown Rodney Crowell, is not the deepest song lyrically but an extremely fun listen with a great singalong chorus. A cover of the Louvin Brothers’ “If I Could Only Win Your Love” with Herb Pedersen on banjo and harmony vocals is pure magic. “The Queen of the Silver Dollar”, written by the always interesting Shel Silverstein, is a hilarious tale of a heartbroken barroom patron who imagines herself as royalty in her favorite drinking establishment. I’ve yet to hear a Silverstein composition I haven’t liked, and this song is no exception. The melancholy ballads (e.g. “Before Believing”, “Sleepless Nights”, and a cover of Tammy Wynette’s “Too Far Gone”, written by producer Billy Sherrill) are capable of cutting close to the bone.
Emmylou is many things as an artist (an excellent interpretative vocalist being chief among them), but a prolific songwriter she is not. However, the lone Harris writing credit on this album is a dandy. Co-written with Bill Danoff (of “Afternoon Delight” and “Take Me Home, Country Roads” fame), “Boulder to Birmingham” is widely interpreted to be about Gram Parsons’ death. A beautiful ballad with a soaring chorus, it is my favorite track on the album and remains one of my favorite Emmylou Harris songs to this day.
In summation, Pieces of the Sky is an extremely easy album to recommend. It might not be Emmylou’s best album, but it’s definitely in the conversation. If you haven’t explored Harris’ music yet, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better place to start than the beginning. The vocals, songwriting, production, and musicianship are all first-class.