Album Review – “Pieces of The Sky” by Emmylou Harris

In 1975, Emmylou Harris released her first major album, Pieces of the Sky, to great acclaim. Largely conceived and recorded while Harris was mourning the sudden death of her close friend and mentor, country-rock pioneer Gram Parsons, it remains one of the finest entries in her legendary catalogue. While Harris had already gained some recognition as a duet partner and bandmate of Parsons, whether she could succeed as a solo artist was an open question. Needless to say, Harris passed the test with flying colors.
Produced by Brian Ahern (whom Harris would marry and later divorce), the album enlisted the aid of many top musicians, some already legends and others who were then just starting out but would go on to be superstars. Credited on the album are (you might want to pull up a chair for this) are rock guitar legend James Burton, fiddle virtuoso Richard Greene, Billy Payne of Little Feat, Bernie Leadon of the Eagles, former Crickets member Glen D. Hardin, ex-Dillards member Herb Pedersen, Linda Ronstadt as a backing vocalist, and even future Entertainer of the Year-winner Ricky Skaggs playing fiddle on a couple of tracks. Needless to say, there aren’t a lot of albums with this much star power, especially from so many diverse areas of music.

The production by Brian Ahern (who would go on to produce Harris many more times, even after their divorce, as well as such luminaries as George Jones) is understated and organic, allowing the musicians to really do their thing. The album’s overall aesthetic isn’t strictly country in a traditional sense (except for maybe on the “The Bottle Let Me Down” cover), but it doesn’t fit neatly into any other genre either. Harris’s music is paradoxically both traditional and boundary-pushing. Like many elite artists, she builds on the traditions of country music without repeating them.

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.

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