Already celebrated as a discoverer and interpreter of other artists songs, 12-time Grammy Award winner Emmylou Harris has, in the last decade, gained admiration as much for her eloquently straightforward songwriting as for her incomparably expressive singing. On Hard Bargain, her third Nonesuch disc, she offers 11 original songsthree of them co-written with Grammy and Oscarwinning composer Will Jenningsthat touch on the autobiographical while reaching for the universal. She recalls the storied time she spent with her mentor Gram Parsons ("The Road") and composes a sweet remembrance of the late singer-songwriter Kate McGarrigle ("Darlin Kate") and the time they spent together, right up to the end. Harris locates poignancy and fresh meaning in events both historical and personal. On "My Name Is Emmett Till" she recounts a violent, headline-making story from the civil rights era in a heartbreakingly plain-spoken narrative, told from the murdered victims perspective; on "Goodnight Old World," she fashions a bittersweet lullaby to her newly born grandchild, contrasting a grown-ups world-weariness with a babys wide-eyed wonder. "Big Black Dog," with its loping canine-like rhythms, is also a true tale, about a black lab mix named Bella. Harris, who runs a dog shelter called Bonapartes Retreat on her property, rescued Bella from the Nashville Metro pound and provided an especially happy ending to her story: "She goes on the tour bus with me now, along with another one of my rescues. I think of all the years on the road I wasted without a dog. They make it so much more pleasant. Im making up for lost time now, thats for sure."
Few in pop or country music have achieved such honesty or revealed such maturity in their writing. Forty years into her career, Harris shares the hard-earned wisdom thathopefully if not inevitablycomes with getting older, though shes never stopped looking ahead. The candor of Harriss words is matched by a simple, elegantly rendered production from Jay Joyce (Patty Griffin, Jack Ingram, Cage the Elephant), with whom shed previously recorded a theme for the romantic drama, Nights in Rodanthe. While Harriss acclaimed 2008 All I Intended to Be was recorded intermittently over a span of three years and featured an all-star cast of musician friends, including Dolly Parton, Vince Gill, and the McGarrigles, Hard Bargain was cut in a mere four weeks last summer at a Nashville studio, with only Harris, Joyce, and multi-instrumentalist Giles Reaves. Joyce gets big results from this strikingly small combo: Harris played acoustic guitars and overdubbed all the harmonies; Joyce layered shimmering electric guitar parts; Reavesemploying piano, pump organ, and synths as well as playing percussionconjured gorgeous atmospherics, often giving these tracks, as Harris puts it, "a floaty, dreamy quality."
"Its such a beautifully realized sound," says Harris. "We didnt have the need for anyone else given how versatile Giles and Jay are. We became our own little family in the studio. We cut very simply, with just maybe a click and whatever they wanted to play and me on an acoustic guitar, going for that vocal and that feel, right to the heart of the matter. After we got a track, there were all those lovely brush strokes they were able to add to it later on. I particularly love the guitar part Jay put on My Name Is Emmett Till. Its a simple part but it just breaks my heart whenever I hear it. Its like a cry from heaven or something. Jay works really fast but he puts so much thought into what he does. Ive been very lucky to work with so many great producers over the years and now I guess it was time to increase the stable."
On "The Road," with its layers of reverb-doused electric guitars and harmony-packed chorus, Harris addresses, more forthrightly than shes ever done in song, the short, life-altering period when she worked with country-rock pioneer Parsons. She and Joyce agreed this rousing number should open the disc, and its theme of coming to terms with the past sets the tone for much of what follows. Explains Harris, "I think you get to a certain point in your life where you do gaze back over the years and its sort of a celebration or a thank-you for the fact that you cross paths with people who change you forever. Certainly Gram did that; I did come down walking in his shoes and trying to carry on for him. So I really just told that story the way I see it in my mind, the brief time we had and how I couldnt imagine that Gram wouldnt be around forever. Life goes on and unfolds before you, but those people and those events that change you forever are always with you. It was an important event that determined the trajectory of my life and, more than anything, of my work."