Byline: Andrew Leahey, THE WASHINGTON TIMES
There's a reason Emmylou Harris has become the go-to duet partner for virtually every male songwriter looking for a little country credibility.
Since partnering with Gram Parsons in the early '70s, Miss Harris has boasted one of the best voices in the business, imbued with the sort of sad, ethereal elegance that's as heartbreaking as it is beautiful. When she sings Love Hurts, you better believe it.
Bob Dylan, Ryan Adams and Conor Oberst have all featured her vocals on their own albums. Miss Harris doesn't solicit much outside help on Hard Bargain, though, jettisoning her collaborative past in favor of an intimate, personal song cycle.
There have been two sides to Miss Harris' solo work: the earthy country-rock that launched her career four decades ago, and the atmospheric folk that filled her 1995 comeback album, Wrecking Ball. "Hard Bargain" is a mix of both. Backed by producer Jay Joyce and instrumental handyman Giles Reaves, Miss Harris floats between the two styles with ease, crooning her melodies over hazy blasts of pump organ one moment and twangy guitars the next.
Although she wrote 11 of the album's 13 songs herself, Hard Bargain isn't entirely autobiographical. Miss Harris recasts herself as a homeless woman during Home Sweet Home and sings My Name is Emmett Till from the perspective of the title character, whose controversial murder helped trigger the American civil rights movement in 1955. In a genre that often relies on stock characters, she isn't afraid to venture well outside the box.
Still, she's at her most eloquent performing the tunes that hit closest to home. Darlin' Kate bids a reverent farewell to folk singer Kate McGarrigle, who succumbed to sarcoma early last year, and The Road pays tribute to her mentor, the late Parsons. I can still remember every song you played, she sings, subtly tugging at the heartstrings the way she's always done.
Hard Bargain is an understated record. The arrangements are lush, but they don't conjure up the swirling, majestic aura of Wrecking Ball. The vocal performances are modest, too, focusing on clear melody lines and leaving the diva acrobatics to the Carrie Underwoods of the world.
Modesty is one of Miss Harris' strongest assets, however. At age 64, she wears her years well, declining to swing for the fences for fear of missing the ball entirely. Hard Bargain may not be flashy, but there's a quiet, confident grace to these songs, which pull their punches while still leaving an impact. …