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Emmylou Harris' Wrecking Ball: A Ghostly Light in This Sweet Old World

04/17/2014 02:43 EDT | Updated 06/17/2014 05:59 EDT

Emmylou Harris' Wrecking Ball came out in 1995, when I was 17 years old, and remains for me among the most influential albums I've ever heard. I have gone on to become a music historian, a rock critic, and a musician, and though I probably would have done all of those things with my life, it's tough to imagine the way my musical education would have progressed had it not been for Wrecking Ball. It was like a door that opened for me as a listener, and through which I passed into a new universe of possibility.

This was a gateway record.

Here's the thing. In early 1995 when Emmylou Harris went into the studio with Daniel Lanois to make her 19th solo record, she was pretty sure her career as a superstar was over. Nashville - and country music radio along with it -- had embraced something they were calling "New Country." Garth Brooks ruled the airwaves, the charts, and the sound. People like Emmylou -- hell, even people like Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson -- were increasingly seen as old news. They were believed to be unmarketable. Their most recent records didn't sell, they couldn't seem to craft a hit, and the new young fans Nashville was courting didn't seem much interested in history.

In other words, even though Emmylou Harris had come up with the legendary Gram Parsons in the early 70s, and had gone on to make some of the best records of that decade on her own (like Pieces of the Sky! Elite Hotel! Luxury Liner! Roses in the Snow!) it didn't seem to count for much with the CMT crowd.

Harris had tried to join the flow. In 1989 she released Bluebird, a mostly slick record that tried to get into the New Country sound. It was only a modest success commercially. She followed it with Brand New Dance in 1990, which sold poorly and, for the first time in 15 years, failed to produce a top 40 hit. In 1993 she tried her hand at straight-up country again, releasing the excellent Cowgirl's Prayer, but by now country radio and video shows were simply ignoring her (along with most everyone over the age of about 40). Harris felt defeated, and even dejected. Her record label told her they were out of ideas. What do you do when a bona fide star makes a top-shelf record and no one in the music establishment seems to notice? Her label implored her: we're open to a new plan. Any suggestions?

So Emmylou Harris decided to take the biggest risk of her career.

She had been a huge fan of Daniel Lanois' debut solo record Acadie, and had been equally impressed by his production work on Bob Dylan's 1989 comeback album Oh Mercy. "God! I had such an emotional reaction to those records," she recently told The Telegraph's Helen Brown. "The sound! All of a sudden you were hearing in technicolour." Known for atmospheric, forward-leaning, stadium-ready rock'n'roll records -- he was famous for producing huge records by U2, Peter Gabriel & Robbie Robertson in the mid-to-late 1980s -- Lanois was about as far from an obvious choice to collaborate with Emmylou Harris as one could imagine.

And so, she told her record label, that's who she wanted.

For his part, Lanois loved the idea from the get go. He loved the mystery, the challenge. "I knew there were hidden secrets [in Emmylou] that I was not hip to," he told The Irish Times' Jim Carroll. "And I knew I'd come out of doing that record with something that I could learn from. That was the driving force for me." The stage was set for a truly remarkable, almost counter-intuitive, collaboration. They were about to make one of the best records of the decade.

A gateway record for us, and for them too.

A gateway to a new musical language -- country music washed in lysergic acid and twilight, bare intimacy amid the fullness of a richly textured soundscape -- Wrecking Ball taught us to rethink the possibilities of the genre. As a concept album that took as its connective tissue the ache of loss, the despair of separation from something you love, the mystery of eternity, Wrecking Ball is a harrowing trip through an emotional wringer. It's a darkly lit, yet weirdly luminous, world they created; to paraphrase Bob Dylan: you could stay with it forever and never realize the time. A gateway record, then, into a new articulation of the blues.

Something else that may slip people's notice now, 20 years on, is that Wrecking Ball served as the introduction to many of us (certainly to me) of some of the most exciting musicians and songwriters of the past couple decades. It won't be him playing tonight, but that opening drum riff on "Where Will I Be", the dreamy first track on Wrecking Ball, was the first time I ever got to hear Brian Blade. What a revelation! What an expressive, dynamic, enveloping piece of drumming! Now looked upon as perhaps the greatest drummer in the game, Blade went on to back everyone from Joni Mitchell, to Wayne Shorter, to Chick Corea, to Bob Dylan, to Daniel Lanois himself.

And then there's the fact that two of the songs covered here introduced me (and probably you) to the likes of Gillian Welch and Patty Griffin (their astonishing debut records wouldn't come out till the following year). It was also the first time I had heard of either Julie Miller or Lucinda Williams. Williams' breakthrough album Car Wheels On A Gravel Road was another three years away, and Julie Miller was still a relative unknown on the singer-songwriter circuit. Talk about an entry-point -- Wrecking Ball introduced us to four of the best songwriters, soon to be among the most vibrant voices, in American music.

On top of that, Wrecking Ball served as a reintroduction to the fabulous songwriting behind Canadian folksinging duo Kate and Anna McGarrigle. On a record full of great songs, "Going Back To Harlan" (by Anna) might just be the greatest of them all. Excpect it to be a real highlight tonight.

And finally, I don't know how many of you recall, but there was a time that Steve Earle was known primarily as a one or two hit wonder. After the huge success of Copperhead Road in 1988, he had drifted into addiction, and had finally wound up in prison. When Train A Comin', his acoustic comeback record, came out at the beginning of 1995, it was greeted with relative indifference by radio stations and pretty much everyone who wasn't a critic. But, when I heard Emmylou Harris' cover of Earle's marvelous song "Goodbye" on Wrecking Ball, I remember going right to that Train A Comin CD and straight up studying that album as if for clues. In a real way, Emmylou Harris and Daniel Lanois introduced me to Steve Earle, who has become another of my most cherished musicians. A hell of a thing.

But, at the end of the day, what we had with Wrecking Ball, and what we have the privilege of witnessing tonight, is a magical collaborative effort between two singular musical voices. On the one hand, you have Emmylou Harris, possessed of a voice of supernatural clarity and depth. And on the other, you have Daniel Lanois -- who grew up in Ancaster, just outside of Hamilton, by the way -- one of the most distinctive sonic craftsmen in music history.

"It was stunning," Harris recently said of the moment they first began to play together. "From the very first song... the sound of what was being played around me... all of a sudden I came to life. It was almost as if I'd been sleeping and I woke up. Dan's turbulent rhythms and the sounds that came from a very small group of musicians in that small room... I knew something magical was happening. All I had to do was sing."

Emmylou Harris and Daniel Lanois may not have set out to make an alternative country masterpiece, as such. But Harris' decades of immersion in the waters of traditional country music, and her astonishing ability to inhabit the emotional landscape of the songs she sings, combined with Lanois' unmatched ability to construct and manipulate sonic texture and rhythmic environments, meant that what would be born of their union would be otherwise unclassifiable. This was definitely going to be an alternative record. This was always going to be something new under the sun. The question was, of course: Would it work?

Here we are, just about 20 years later, to underline and put into bold relief the fact that, even though it produced no hits, failed to make the country charts at all, and to this day remains a middling seller (having moved about 370,000 units, well short of Gold status in the US anyway), this grand gateway album most certainly did work.

For those of us looking for water from a deeper well, few records have ever been so emphatically accomplished at quenching that thirst. So, long live the Wrecking Ball: A ghostly light in this sweet old world.