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This review argues a case for reviewing single tracks and a perspective on criticism.
* I do not quite do the same for French poetry where the metrical forms and grammar are more restrictive.
** T.S. Eliot on Philip Massinger, The Sacred Wood (1921):
One of the surest tests is the way in which a poet borrows. Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal....
The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different from that from which it is torn.
Video of Emmylou Harris and Mark Knopfler about a decade ago. Graceful artists both. I heard him live, a little before this I think, at Jazz à Juan, no jazz involved but spellbinding in the Mediterranean night air. He sang many of the songs he performed live with Emmylou, some of which they discuss here in another video.
I've only just come across this video of Emmylou (in mid-February 2016) but if you think about it she's near enough the dream interviewee, even if she's chosen a sympathetic interviewer.
I like late Emmylou Harris compositions, too. Belle Starr is a lovely song. Though she has no need for others to cover it, the ever-evolving Emmylou sound having become so unique, I'd like to see other important artists sing it to see where they take it.
I like her recent work with Rodney Crowell , including 2015 album, The Traveling Kind, which is amusing, thought-provoking and well-suited to her current vocal range.Her friend, Linda Ronstadt, has an interesting take on emotions, as she writes in Simple Dreams:
Added to these characteristics are emotions and thoughts that register as various vocal quirks, like hiccups, sighs, growls, warbles - a practically limitless assortment of choices. Most of these choices are made at the speed of sound on a subconscious level, or one would be completely overwhelmed by the task.
It is this limitlessness that perhaps contributes to many finding Linda Ronstadt the most naturally gifted female American voice of her generation.
Late Emmylou Harris has a growing number of unique sounds of her own and, in the end, it may be the body of her work that will define her legacy as the non-classical, female singer of her generation who, as consummate professional, achieved the most musically. (She is now so much in the lead no one will catch her).
On 30 April 2016 a back recording was released: Live At The Boarding House, KSAN-FM Broadcast, San Francisco CA, 28th November 1975.
With live performance being very much in vogue at the moment, this, even remastered, is a tour de force for live: fifteen songs in an hour, so many now classics of the country repetoire, performed by Emmylou and the Hot Band.
You get a flavour of the rock energy and tempo that probably was injected into her music by her association with Gram Parsons.
There is a Boulder to Birmingham, track, too, with variations in the instrumental treatment to the studio version.
Were this a review of an art form I'm more practised in writing about doubtless I could get it all down and finished first time round but perhaps we have stumbled across a new form of criticism, iterative criticism, where it gets added to with the passage of time.
Criticism could be one up on journalism because it could appear in books and, in the normal course of events, have a longer half-life.
Now it can escape its bounds into new iterative forms.
There is one further interpretation of Boulder to Birmingham that you must see and hear.
BOULDER TO BIRMINGHAM
Reviewed by ANDRE BEAUMONT
It is scientifically established that the human mind does not understand metaphor till about 12 years old.
This would account for me hating learning poetry at 10 years old but taking like a duck to water to literary criticism of poetry from 16 years old.
Axiomatic to tackling English language poetry*, in a rather modernist way that I taught myself, was first to understand it for what it sounded like, then to understand it for allusion, metaphor and emotion and only then to read the text for literal meaning. Understanding the poet's life was deliberately excluded till later - the poetry had to stand on its own. We know little, and need to know little, about Shakespeare's life.
Lyrics cannot expect to be treated as poetry. Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal** can be applied to poetry but steal in lyrics and you can end up with a writ.
Nonetheless, a song's lyrics can be sketchily treated in the same order.
Do they sound fine when set to music? Melody will surely matter in this before going further.
What are the allusions, metaphors, associations and the emotions triggered?
Only then need you put them in the context of the lyrics writer's life, if you can, and it may not matter.
Nearly everyone loves Boulder to Birmingham's refrain with Emmylou Harris singing it:
I would rock my soul in the bosom of Abraham
I would hold my soul in his saving grace
I would walk all the way from Boulder to Birmingham
If I thought I could see, I could see your face
(If I thought I could see, I could see your face)
Yet reading the lyrics of the whole song with no context you might not place the genre. (Once you have the music of course you place it in the canon of country music). She is saying it is not a love song in the first line but it sounds like one. With the reference to Abraham is it religious? Is it a regret song? Is it a landscape song? It is a bit of each, confirmed when you learn it is about sadness at the early death of her friend, collaborator and mentor, Gram Parsons.
The allusions are personal, for sure.
Yet hearing the lyrics may trigger a flood of emotions in the listener, like poetry.
With Emmylou singing it you have a short song, so it comes at you concentrated over time, again like poetry, and you have her own emotions ( at 1:29:00) which you will not get with others covering it.
Were I sitting with the artist, and coming from a different critical background to a music critic, I'd ask her more about what the road sounded like and why she thought it was like the ocean (the poetry critic) and what the space felt and looked like when the canyon was on fire (the architecture critic).
This is because alongside the primary emotions like sadness or fear, a high quality piece of art triggers secondary emotions and an artist might confirm them, or point them out, or deny that they came into it. However she might jump, it would be useful in understanding the work.
Together with what the artist might say about the music, which would be the most important, that would result, at least in my case, in a significantly better review, with less errors, than would result from just listening to a studio track or a live performance.
Boulder to Birmingham is the only track in Pieces to the Sky that Emmylou Harris wrote the lyrics to and so makes the case for its review as a track.
Indeed, reviewing a track allows one to juxtapose more than one cover of it by different artists.
Bill Danoff composed Boulder to Birmingham. Brian Ahearn produced it.
The original is lovely for the dominance of Emmylou Harris' voice without too much volume and a fairly toned down backing, which is also in evidence in videos   of her performing live.
The clarity of her tone and the way she hits the notes and holds them makes hers the best cover of the song and she is the only one who makes you want to hear the song again and again.
Joan Baez I have always liked but I was not aware that she had covered this song. Her diction is better and she takes her time more, in her arrangement, which is just under half a minute longer.
My guess is she could cope with any venue - her voice can dominate with minimum instrumental support anywhere - but I would take her cover for outdoors, where it was recorded live and then reissued.
Dolly Parton heavily arranges it, and goes over half a minute longer, and there is much more by way of supporting instrumentals so I would take her cover for playing in a concert hall where none of the instrumental detail was suppressed by acoustics.
Really, though, Emmylou Harris is the most compelling. It was a breakthrough track for her and it could only have been to her benefit that Joan Baez covered it not so long afterwards.