VMP is honored to feature Emmylou Harris’ breakout album, Pieces of the Sky, as our Country Record of the Month in September 2021. Pieces of the Sky is Harris’ solo breakthrough, and an album with a heart-breaking story behind it, which you can read more about in the album’s Listening Notes.
With a career spanning over 50 years, Pieces of the Sky is merely the telltale beginning of a career that would go on to influence country music, and music at large, for decades. From solo albums that hold their weight against her stunning breakthrough to collaborations with some of the biggest names in country music, Harris’ catalogue is beyond worthy of some focused listening. We put together this primer so you can widen your understanding of the context surrounding her Record of the Month and further explore some of the many heights her work reached following Pieces of the Sky.
“For my money, they’re the greatest recorded duets in popular music; you don’t have to talk about just in country music,” Elvis Costello once said of Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris. Grievous Angel is sparkling evidence of that statement. It’s Parsons’ second and last studio album, released four months after his death, and it’s an essential listen for understanding Harris’ and Parsons’ musical relationship — the one that lived on in Pieces of the Sky and each subsequent album of Harris’ after that. She is, of course, featured prominently across the album, and it lives as a perfect document of not only their shared musical vision, but their immaculate vocal performance chemistry. It’s arguably the most vital listen to precede and contextualize your spins of Pieces of the Sky.
Elite Hotel, technically Harris’ third studio album, was released the same year as Pieces of the Sky, just under 10 months after. The two albums share an undeniable sonic DNA, but while Pieces of the Sky was the major-label debut that initially launched her solo career, Elite Hotel was the album that crystalized its fate and introduced her to the worldwide stage. The album hit No. 1 on Billboard Country charts, Harris’ first No. 1 album, and boasted two No. 1 singles: a warm rendition of Buck Owens’ "Together Again" and “Sweet Dreams,” Harris' take on a Patsy Cline tune. She continued to carry the weight of Gram Parsons’ legacy with honor, giving her own spin on her own spin on "Ooh Las Vegas" off of Grievous Angel, as well as the Flying Burrito Brothers' "Sin City" and "Wheels.” And much like Pieces of the Sky, you’ll find classic country tunes rehashed and reinvented with her chilling otherworldly croon scrawled all over them, like in her takes on Hank Williams’ “Jambalaya” and “Till I Gain Control Again.”
Released almost exactly a year after Elite Hotel, Luxury Liner arguably marks Harris’ commercial peak, becoming her second No. 1 album on the Billboard Country charts and remaining one of her best-selling solo records to this day. But in addition to its mass appeal and commercial achievement, it’s also in many ways Harris’ most singular work. The fact alone that her version of Chuck Berry's "(You Never Can Tell) C'est La Vie" can sit so snuggly next to Townes Van Zandt's "Pancho and Lefty" or The Louvin Brothers' "When I Stop Dreaming" in perfect cohesion is a true testament to Emmylou and the Hot Band’s distinct touch — a touch that they’d spent the preceding albums honing.
While an array of more traditional country stylings can be found in pockets across her entire discography, including more progressive country rock like Pieces of the Sky, her seventh studio album, Roses in the Snow, finds Harris favoring bluegrass specifically. While a bluegrass album is an admittedly risky pursuit commercially — particularly in 1980 when the album was released — the record hit No. 2 on the Billboard Country chart and went on to be certified Gold. In addition to be worth a listen for the immaculately executed left turn in style for Harrius, Roses in the Snow is also a delightful game of iSpy for the blockbuster country star names like Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt and Willie Nelson that all appear on the album.
Even though a mere glance at the names on this album’s shared marquee automatically slots it into the “too big to fail” category, Parton, Ronstadt and Harris didn’t lean on star status alone in pursuing a collaboration with a bend toward the traditional. “We wanted more of a cohesive idea, more than just three women singing together. And that was a musical style, which we felt was more a traditional kind of music,” Harris told Cashbox around the time of the album’s release. The three friends and mutual fans of one another first initiated the album’s creation in the mid-’70s, but due to their individual businesses and the many challenges of cross-label coordination, it ended up being a decade in the making. Unsurprisingly, it was worth the wait; the album went Platinum, ended up selling nearly 2 million copies worldwide, and the trio ended up releasing a second iteration in 1999, Trio II.
While there are a lot of country-leaning albums in Harris’ discography that aren’t on this primer that are more than worthy of a spin, Wrecking Ball is a must-listen, as it’s illuminating and demonstrative of Harris’ baffling range and evolution. Released when she was 48 years old, Wrecking Ball was a deep departure from anything she’d made before, more of a 180 than a left turn. Working with Daniel Lanois (best known for working with U2) on production, she went for an edgier, more raw singer-songwriter sound that was met with immense acclaim upon its release and continues to hold.
Amileah Sutliff is a New York-based writer, editor and creative producer and an editor of the book The Best Record Stores in the United States.