Emmylou Harris's 'Wrecking Ball' Turns 20
By Chuck Sudo in Arts & Entertainment on Feb 6, 2014 4:45PM
Emmylou Harris performs at Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum on October 27, 2013 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Jason Davis/Getty Images)
Emmylou Harris’s musical career was at a crossroads in the early-to-mid-1990s. The solid but unspectacular Cowgirl’s Prayer was released in 1993, when the bombast and commercial peak of Garth Brooks laid the foundation for the modern-day version of hair metal that modern country music has become. There was suddenly no room in Nashville for Harris’s traditionalist leanings and ear for smartly written songs and quality production values.
Two years later Harris released Wrecking Ball, a career-redefining masterpiece that saw the singer, at age 45, reinventing herself by sticking to her roots while updating her sound courtesy of the production of Daniel Lanois, who was responsible along with Brian Eno for crafting U2’s early sound and being the sonic mastermind behind Peter Gabriel’s So and Bob Dylan’s Time Out of Mind, among others.
In Lanois, Harris found her first true muse since the late Gram Parsons and she allowed Lanois to place his musical fingerprints are all over Wrecking Ball, from the haunting opener “Where Will I Be” with its reverb-drenched guitar and marching band snare drum work from U2’s Larry Mullen Jr.; an ethereal cover of Jimi Hendrix’s “May This Be Love” with harmony vocals by Neil Young; the ominous “Deeper Well;” and the closing number “Waltz Across Texas Tonight,” a song penned by Harris and longtime collaborator Rodney Crowell. End to end there isn’t a single throwaway song on Wrecking Ball and Lanois’s production holds up nearly two decades later. This is the very definition of a desert island disc.
Wrecking Ball was a critical smash upon its release and eventually won the 1996 Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Folk Album. The album’s sonic template ignored Nashville, propelled Harris into alternative rock territory and exposed her to a new audience of listeners already growing cynical of how the term “alternative” was being commodified. Harris became a godmother of sorts for the Lilith Fair crowd and female singer-songwriters finding critical and commercial success themselves. Harris took the post-Wrecking Ball lessons to heart and continued with her new sound in the subsequent releases Red Dirt Girl and Stumble Into Grace before eventually returning to her traditionalist roots on her own terms. In short, Wrecking Ball breathed new life into Harris’s recording career that continues to this day.
On April 8 Nonesuch Records will re-release Wrecking Ball as a three-disc set containing a remastered version of the album, a documentary Building the Wrecking Ball containing studio footage and interviews with Harris, Lanois and other artists who performed on the album like Kate and Anna McGarrigle and Steve Earle, and a bonus CD of demos and outtakes.
Harris will hit the road to promote the reissue in April and she’s bringing Lanois with her. She’s revisited Wrecking Ball in a live setting before but this is the first time she’ll be doing so with Lanois. The tour stops at The Vic Theatre 8 p.m. April 8. Tickets ($65) go on sale 10 a.m. Friday, Feb. 7.