Gram Parsons was like a musical Easter Bunny. He jumped onto the scene, and before we even realized what he left for us, he was gone. All we have now is a tiny amount of always-welcome eggs he left for anyone willing to look. From The International Submarine Band to the majority of records made by his main protégé, Emmylou Harris, we find albums and songs that spread a sense of free-wheelin’ beauty and life rarely found in any musician's legacy. We find artists who walk the same line as he did -- musicians who stroll down the halls of music history, respectful of the past but determined to have their own songs fill the same jukeboxes; music that fits into his dreams of a glorious stew of past, present rock ‘n’ roll, country, and R&B he termed “Cosmic American Music.”
Ms. Harris walked this very tightrope with her major label debut, Pieces of the Sky, an album as achingly beautiful as a sunrise and as mournful as a sunset. The album feels like you’re going to a log cabin home, sitting on rolling acres of land in rural California, drinking a few glasses of wine with Harris, and then sitting back to listen to her beautiful, fragile voice as she mines the playlist in her head. These are songs you can tell she loves, and you never forget it, you never doubt it. And once you feel sufficiently placed within the classics of country and western music, she attempts to pull you toward new ground by following Parsons’ lead and goading country music, the large lumbering beast that it is, to a new kind of sound, a sound unafraid of change and rhythm & blues and boys with mop-top haircuts.
The rollicking rendition of Rodney Crowell’s “Bluebird Wine” kicks off the album, and it's like a fountain of youth. Which is one of the most surprising and ultimately rewarding aspects of this album. No matter how many classic songs spin by, no matter how respectful everything is to the dusty LPs of yesteryear, this album always sounds fresh and alive. Like a child’s first step or a pimply faced kid's first power chord, you get the desire to always keep moving, to stay alive, to keep on truckin’ no matter what life throws at you.
Believe me, life got thrown at Emmylou, and this album revels in it. Since she was dealing with the recent death of her aforementioned mentor Gram Parsons, it's no surprise that these ten songs resemble therapy sessions, from the brand new start of “Bluebird Wine,” to the depression of “Too Far Gone,” to the drunken apathy of “Bottle Let Me Down” (which is, by the way, an awesome version of the Merle Haggard tune). By the time the fourth track of side one begins, you miss Gram yourself. Meanwhile, “Boulder to Birmingham” is such an overwhelmingly gorgeous song that it can’t do anything but break your cold hipster heart at least a little.
Harris learned well from Parsons, and it shows. She does what few artists can and swiftly runs through classic songs like Dolly Parton’s “Coat of Many Colors” or The Louvin Brother’s “If I Could Only Win Your Love” with a loving devotion as only a person who truly needed this music can. She never tries to outdo the originals, yet these renditions are unmistakably hers, and hers alone. Her cover of The Beatles’ “For No One” flows by with more sadness and longing and regret than Paul or John could ever muster. It’s a cover that adds a freshness to an album that already feels like a winner from track one.
Finally Pieces of the Sky concludes with “Queen of the Silver Dollar,” and Harris’ crown begins to rest peacefully on her head. Whether that silver dollar is one that picks a couple of her songs on a trusty Wurlitzer or the honky-tonk she sings, she deserves her crown, and this album was the start of her rule.