Emmylou Harris was a brainy beauty queen from the D.C. suburbs trying to make it as a folksinger when she met Gram Parsons, who recruited her as a backup singer, moved her out to Los Angeles, and turned her on to the country harmonies of the Louvin Brothers. Hooked on early country's unadorned tales of sin and redemption, she barely stopped to look forward. After spending the seventies expanding on Parsons's hazy vision of country as "cosmic American music," she threw herself into bluegrass, recorded an album at Nashville's Ryman Auditorium with the all-acoustic Nash Ramblers, and explored "songs of the west" in the mid-nineties. She was never timid -- Harris made country move to rock's rhythms with an artist's ear and an angel's voice -- but she sometimes honored the past with a literalness only a former folkie could muster.
That all ended with 1995's brilliant Wrecking Ball. In need of a new producer, Harris turned to Daniel Lanois, who brought a sonic gauze and an expansive scope to U2's The Joshua Tree and has since helped Bob Dylan revive his career on Time Out of Mind. Anything but authentic and all the better for it, Wrecking Ball's modern sound captured the haunting, high-lonesome vibe of Harris's best performances with quiet echoes and understated effects. And after a detour into the harmony singing she's loved since hearing the Louvins (1999's Western Wall), Harris again looks ahead on Red Dirt Girl (Nonesuch).
Though the album follows the path cleared by Wrecking Ball, Harris takes more confident strides; she wrote nearly everything on Red Dirt Girl herself (the first time she's done so since 1985's vaguely conceptual The Ballad of Sally Rose). Lanois didn't produce, but Malcolm Burn (who engineered and mixed Wrecking Ball) gives Red Dirt Girl a similarly spacious sound: "The Pearl" sets Harris's meditation on faith over a chiming track, and the poppier "I Don't Want to Talk About It Now" gets a rhythmic charge from a funky bass line. Even enhanced by effects, her songwriting resonates with the stark emotions -- faith, hope, crushing guilt and remorse -- of the country she cut her teeth on.
Unfortunately, a little knowledge of the recording studio can be a dangerous thing, and Red Dirt Girl occasionally crosses the line from mellow into mannered. While Lanois made Wrecking Ball so intimate you could hear Harris breathe on the title track, Burn sometimes smooths over such impurities with sonic twists and tweaks -- a springy sound at the start of "The Pearl," what sounds like a tape unwinding at the beginning of "Michelangelo" -- that only serve as distractions.
Hardly terminal ones, though. Monday night, during a "rehearsal with an audience" at Joe's Pub, Harris found a happy medium between formalist experimentation (a country band with a drum solo!) and her traditional expressiveness. Old songs got new textures, new songs found traditional roots, and "Bang the Drum Slowly," a song Harris wrote for her late father that bogs down in orchestration on Red Dirt Girl, became a moving lamentation with a modern edge. As on the best parts of Red Dirt Girl, she displayed the confidence in where you're going that only comes from knowing exactly where you're from.
In brief: Instead of coming to country from the counterculture, Willie Nelson stomped away from seventies Nashville to cut his Texas twang with rock rebellion (and copious amounts of dope). Like Harris, he helped kick-start country rock in the seventies, then foundered a bit in the nineties before reinvigorating his career with help from Lanois (on 1998's Teatro, which features guest vocals from Harris). Especially in comparison, Milk Cow Blues (Island) sounds like a placeholder. The song selection is impressively varied ("Sittin' on Top of the World," in particular, rewards Nelson's brooding restraint), and the guest list is appropriately star-studded (Dr. John, B. B. King, Kenny Wayne Shepherd) -- de rigueur in the wake of Santana's recent success. But Nelson's voice, silky enough to sing standards, lacks the vocal grit for the blues, and he rarely works up enough energy to milk the titular cow. Most of these songs are better suited for a supper club than for a juke joint.