In 1995, Emmylou Harris was thirty-eight, and about to release the sixteenth album of her career Wrecking Ball. Emmylou hoped that Wrecking Ball would be the album that would transform her fortunes. Having enjoyed commercial success and critical acclaim between 1975 and 1981, Emmylou’s career had stalled. The problem was, she was no longer enjoying the mainstream success she’d previously enjoyed. For six years, Emmylou was one of the most successful country artists

That’s why Emmylou received seven gold discs in the US and two silver discs between 1975s Pieces Of The Sky and 1981s Evangeline. During that period, Emmylou had won three Grammy awards. Following Evangeline the commercial success and critical acclaim Emmylou enjoyed seemed to dry up. The problem was, Emmylou wasn’t enjoying the same mainstream success. Country music was no longer as popular. 

From, 1981s Cimarron right through to 1993s Cowgirl’s Prayer, commercial success eluded Emmylou. Cimarron was Emmylou’s most successful album, reaching just number forty-six in the US Billboard 200 charts. That was as good as it got. 

When Emmylou released White Shoes in 1983, it reached just number 116 in the US Billboard 200. In My Dreams, a track from White Shoes saw Emmylou win the fourth Grammy Award of her career. Sadly, despite winning another Grammy Award, Emmylou’s career was on the slide. 

1985s The Ballad Of Sally Rose stalled at number 171 in the US Billboard 200. At least The Ballad Of Sally Rose reached number eight in the US Country charts. Things improved slightly when 1986s Thirteen reached number 157 in the US Billboard 200 and nine in the US Country charts. However, after that things got even worse.

1987s Angel Band stalled at number 166 in the US Billboard 200 charts. Then 1989s Bluebird and 1990s Brand New Dance failed to chart. That was a huge blow for Emmylou Harris. However, things improved in 1993.

Cowgirl’s Prayer was released in 1993. It was a mixture of laid back track and rockers. Although Cowgirl’s Prayer was well received by critics, it didn’t find its way onto country radio playlists. Older country artists were being dropped from radio playlists in favour of younger artists. Ironically, Emmylou was just thirty-six. In the eyes of radio executives, Emmylou was a veteran. Given this policy, Cowgirl’s Prayer received little airplay and stalled at just number 152 in the US Billboard 200. It was after Cowgirl’s Prayer that Emmylou Harris decided to change direction musically with Wrecking Ball which was recently rereleased as a three disc box set by Nonesuch.

After a string of unsuccessful albums, Emmylou Harris had no other option. So Emmylou decided that from Wrecking Ball on, her music would have a harder, tougher and rockier sound. Gone was the acoustic country sound that Emmylou made her name with. To help Emmylou change direction, she brought in two innovators.

This included Daniel Lanois. He’d previously worked with everyone from Brian Eno and Harold Budd to U2, Peter Gabriel, Bob Dylan, Robbie Robertson and Ron Sexsmith. The other member of Emmylou’s new team was engineer Mark Howard. Mark had worked with Daniel on previous projects and had established a close working relationship. Many of the projects they’d worked on had both commercially successful and critically acclaimed. Hopefully, this would be the case with what became Wrecking Ball.

For Wrecking Ball, Emmylou only cowrote two tracks, Waltz Across Texas Tonight with Rodney Crowell and Deeper Well with David Olney and Daniel Lanois. Daniel contributed Where Will I Be and Blackhawk. Cover versions included Steve Earle’s Goodbye, Julie Miller’s All My Tears, Neil Young’s Wrecking Ball, Anna McGarrigle’s Goin’ Back to Harlan, Bob Dylan’s Every Grain Of Sand, Lucinda Williams’ Sweet Old World, Jimi Hendrix’s May This Be Love and Gillian Welch’s Orphan Girl. These twelve tracks were recorded in Nashville during 1995.

When recording of Wrecking Ball began in Nashville, it was an all-star lineup that accompanied Emmylou. Some musicians only played on one track, others played on several tracks. The rhythm section included U2’s Larry Mullen on drums, cymbal and percussion. Producer Daniel Lanois played bass, electric and acoustic guitar, mandolin and duetted on two tracks. Malcolm Burn played  piano, vibes and tambourine while Tony Hall played drums and Daryl Johnson  bass and keyboards. Other guest artists included Steve Earle and Lucinda Williams on acoustic guitar, Brian Blade on drums and hand drums. Neil Young added harmonies and harmonica. Kate and Anna McGarrigle added harmonies and Richard Bennett tremolo guitar. This all-star cast were part of the reinvention of Emmylou Harris on Wrecking Ball.

Before the release of Wrecking Ball, critics welcome Emmylou’s change of direction. They welcomed the harder, rockier sound. After a string of unsuccessful albums, Wrecking Ball was critically acclaimed. It was hailed as one of the best albums of 1995. Critics welcomed the harder, rockier sound. This was a move away from the country mainstream. However, would Emmylou’s fans and music lovers welcome this change of direction?

Released in September 1995, Wrecking Ball reached number ninety-six in the US Billboard 200. This was Emmylou’s most successful album since 1981s Cimarron. Over the Atlantic, Wrecking Ball reached number 100 in the UK. Although Wrecking Ball didn’t result in any silver, gold or platinum discs. However, Wrecking Ball saw Emmylou win another Grammy Award in 1996 for Best Contemporary Folk Album. Wrecking Ball, which I’ll tell you about, features the reinvention of Emmylou Harris.

Where Will I Be opens Wrecking Ball. It has an atmospheric, slow, spacey sound. Drums and a hand drum combine with a crystalline guitar to provide a backdrop for Emmylou’s hurt-filled vocal. Despair and despondency fill her vocal as a bass buzzes and a cymbal crashes. Meanwhile, searing guitars add a harder edge to this fusion of folk, country and rock. It’s best described as atmospheric, moody and thanks to Emmylou’s  vocal, emotive and beautiful.

Goodbye is a cover of a Steve Earle song. As Emmylou is counted in, hand drums and acoustic guitars combine. Emmylou’s vocal is rueful and tinged with sadness. She breathes life and meaning into the lyrics. So much so, that they take on a cinematic quality. Her vocal is at the heart of the arrangement. Everything else plays a supporting role. Not once does the arrangement overpower Emmylou’s heartbroken vocal, which is at the heart of the song’s success. 

Wrecking Ball is a Neil Young song. It’s from the album that relaunched his career in 1989, Freedom. Emmylou sticks close to Neil’s original version. She delivers a beautiful melancholy take on a Neil Young classic. Neil adds harmonies while understated guitars shimmer and drums are played with subtlety. Just like the previous track, the band play a supporting role, allowing Emmylou and Neil to shine.

Goin’ Back To Harlan, with its fusion of Americana, country and folk, has a Neil Young sound. Just the rhythm section and weeping guitars set the scene for Emmylou. Her ethereal vocal soars above the arrangement. Meanwhile, synths, organ and percussion join the arrangement. This results in an atmospheric, mellow arrangement as Emmylou reinvents this wistful Anna McGarrigle song.

Pounding hand drums that open Deeper Well. They provide the arrangement’s hypnotic heartbeat. Guitars, bass and  keyboards combine, creating a multilayered arrangement. Emmylou’s vocal is a mixture of power and emotion. Daniel Lanois’ arrangement has been inspired by everything from Americana, country, folk, world music and later, rock. It’s a real pot pourri of influences.  

Every Grain Of Sand is a Bob Dylan song. It featured on his 1981 album Shot Of Love. Emmylou stays true to the original. Her vocal oozes emotion. Quite simply, this one of her best vocals on Wrecking Ball. Just acoustic guitars, rhythm section and an organ accompany Emmylou as she rolls back the years. A truly beautiful and emotive vocal, this is simply vintage Emmylou Harris. 

Sweet Old World sees Emmylou pick up where she left on the previous track. Written by Lucinda Williams, Emmylou delivers a tender, heartfelt and soulful vocal. She’s accompanied by the rhythm section and guitars. This includes slide and tremolo guitars. They add to the authentic country sound. So does Neil Young’s harmonica. Nell also adds tender harmonies. They’re a perfect foil for Emmylou as she delivers a vocal that can only be described as heartachingly beautiful.

May This Be Love is a Jimi Hendrix song. Fittingly, just an electric guitar and drums accompany Emmylou’s needy, hopeful vocal. The electric guitar is played by producer Daniel Lanois, who duets with Emmylou. He delivers a a blistering guitar solo while Larry Mullen Jr’s drums provide the heartbeat. Just like other tracks, Emmylou delivers lyrics like she’s lived them.

Orphan Girl opens hesitantly. Just a tambourine and searing guitars combine before Emmylou unleashes a vocal where pain and hurt are omnipresent. Just a hand drum, guitars, mandolin and harmonies accompany Emmylou. It’s as if she’s experienced what she’s singing about. Her portrayal is a mixture of sadness, hurt and honesty.

Blackhawk is the second song Daniel Lanois wrote on Wrecking Ball. It’s a mini soap opera that unfolds before you. The song has a cinematic quality. So much so, that if you close your eyes, the scenes unfold. Emmylou becomes the narrator. She describes the scenarios, bringing the characters to life. Accompanying her is a country-tinged arrangement. Acoustic guitars, the rhythm section, piano and harmonies join forces. Later, Daniel drops an electric guitar in at the right moment.It sets the scene for Emmylou. Her vocal is rueful, memories come flooding back as she wonders “Blackhawk where are you now?”

Waltz Across Texas Tonight closes Wrecking Ball. The tempo is slow, with the rhythm section, acoustic guitar and slide guitar combining with Emmylou’s tender, heartfelt vocal. Harmonies sweep in. So does a searing guitar solo. It adds a rocky twist to what’s an atmospheric, country-tinged arrangement as the reinvention of Emmylou Harris draws to a close.

Wrecking Ball was the most ambitious album of Emmylou Harris’ career. It had to be. Emmylou’s career was at the crossroads.  If Wrecking Ball failed commercially, she’d nowhere to go. Her career could’ve been over. Fortunately, that wasn’t the case. Instead, Wrecking Ball saw Emmylou’s career rejuvenated. It became her most successful album since 1981s Cimarron. Fourteen years later, Emmylou Harris was back. 

Much of the credit must go to producer Daniel Lanois and engineer Mark Howard. They helped Emmylou to create a multilayered album that was variously atmospheric, moody, dark and haunting. Wrecking Ball is an album that’s ethereal and full of different textures. Americana, country, folk and rock shines through on Wrecking Ball, which features an all-star cast of musicians.

This includes U2 drummer Larry Mullen Jr. He provided the hypnotic heartbeat. Emmylou did what she does so well, deliver vocals that are variously beautiful, ethereal, heartfelt, rueful, wistful and full of sadness, hurt and regret. Emmylou’s vocals are flawless. That’s the only way to describe them. Mind you, she was into her fourth decade as a singer, songwriter and musician. Like a good wine, Emmylou’s vocal matured with age. That’s apparent on Wrecking Ball. Her diction and phrasing are what you’d expect from someone who’d won six Grammy Awards. That became seven in 1996, when Wrecking Ball won a Grammy Award in 1996 for Best Contemporary Folk Album. Since then, Wrecking Ball has been remembered as the album that reinvented and rejuvenated Emmylou Harris’ career.  That’s why Wrecking Ball was recently rereleased as a three disc box set by Nonesuch.

Disc two is entitled Deeper Well: The Wrecking Ball Outtakes. It features thirteen tracks. There’s alternate versions of Where Will I Be, All My Tears, Deeper Well, Sweet Old World, Blackhawk, May This Be Love and Goin’ Back To Harlan. Tracks that don’t feature on Wrecking Ball include Still Water, How Will I Ever Be Simple Again, The Stranger Song, Gold and May This Be Love. Among the highlights of the tracks that didn’t make Wrecking Ball are the beautiful and melancholy The Stranger Song and the heartbreaking, piano lead Gold. They both fall into the category of hidden gems. Overall, the various alternate tracks and unreleased tracks make Deeper Well: The Wrecking Ball Outtakes a welcome addition. These tracks are too good to lie unreleased in a record company’s vaults.

On disc three is a documentary entitled Building The Wrecking Ball. It’s a fly-on-the-wall documentary that anyone interested in how an album is made will enjoy. It documents the making of one of the most important albums in Emmylou Harris’ career, Wrecking Ball. 

Before Wrecking Ball, Emmylou found her career at the crossroads. Emmylou realised she had to change direction musically. There was no other option. If she didn’t, she risk becoming irrelevant musically. So Emmylou Harris enlisted the help of producer Daniel Lanois and  engineer Mark Howard. They helped Emmylou reinvent herself musically on Wrecking Ball, an album which rejuvenated Emmylou Harris’ career.



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