Listen to this track by Americana figurehead and country music maven Emmylou Harris. It’s the Daniel Lanois-penned “Where Will I Be?”, the lead track off of her 1995 album Wrecking Ball, also produced by Lanois, and featuring songs by Bob Dylan, Neil Young, and Jimi Hendrix, among others.
By the end of the 1980s and into the 1990s, the country music establishment began to abandon its pioneering elders, no longer supporting the old guard on the radio in favour of the new blood that had begun to shift units on par with rock and pop musicians – New Country, as they called it. And it seemed that country had become just as much a young person’s game as rock and pop were. That is, at least where radio was concerned.
But, that was just the trend in the market. It had nothing to do with good work being made by artists who had always had a greater imagination and range than was supported, or arguably expected, by that very establishment that now shunned any new work from them. As such, being left for dead commercially speaking meant that these artists could make any record they wanted to make.
George Jones sang “I Don’t Need Your Rocking Chair”. Johnny Cash worked with Rick Rubin on his now renowned American Recordings series. Dolly Parton cut The Grass is Blue. And Emmylou Harris recorded Wrecking Ball, a stylistically bold folk-rock record that touches on country, but goes beyond it. Creatively, it seemed that being cut lose from the establishment was not such a bad thing after all.
Emmylou Harris had always operated outside of traditional country sources, having first been a folk-pop singer-songwriter, and then a protegé of country-rock founding father Gram Parsons. Parsons was yet another country artist with a foot in the rock world, having been a member of the Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers before striking out on his own as a proponent of ‘cosmic American music’ that relied heavily on traditional country. In being a support player in Parsons’ musical journey, Harris’ own approach was consolidated. But, in working with Daniel Lanois who had by this time produced Peter Gabriel, Bob Dylan, and U2, she had taken an even bigger and riskier stride across the stylistic divide.
Even though Lanois’ trademark echoey production and delayed effects are all over this track, and largely characterizes the rest of the album too, it’s Emmylou Harris’ voice that makes this a country record. This is her album – all about her voice and her ability with phrasing that established her as a giant in her field when she first began. The balance struck on this track, sung by Harris and played entirely by Lanois on all the instruments (with jazz drummer Brian Blade bringing up the rear), makes this a country-folk song that sounds veritably apocalyptic in its execution.
Because of this record and the stylistic departures it represents, Emmylou Harris escaped the bounds of the country music pigeonhole, allowing her not only to expand her sound, but also to come into her own as a writer on 2000’s Red Dirt Girl, 2003’s Stumble Into Grace, and the even more recent All I Intended To Be from 2008.
For more information about Emmylou Harris, check out Emmylouharris.com