Special to Bums Logic: Guest columnist Mike Short on the beauty and impact of Steve Earle’s song “Goodbye,” recorded by Emmylou Harris.
Alternative country music is extraordinarily difficult to define. Musical labels can be meaningless and irrelevant at the best of times: after all is said and done, it is about the song. If they are used to pigeon-hole artists, then these generic labels go beyond that – listeners are effectively putting their favourite artists in musical straight-jackets, and setting themselves up for disappointment. But as long as no insurmountable barriers, masquerading as objective arbiters of truth, are erected, then the use of the term ‘alt-country’ as a loose guide, backed up by pertinent example and suggestion, can open up an enriched study of some of the highlights of modern American music.
As an example, let’s think about one particular recording of a specific song – one which, as I grew increasingly obsessed by alternative country, became my favourite song. The subjectivity of this choice of song is highlighted by the year of its release. Emmylou Harris released her album Wrecking Ball in 1995, by which time some of the other landmark alt-country bands had taken shape, made their seminal albums, and in the case of Uncle Tupelo, disbanded. How, then, can one song from this album, “Goodbye,” be considered an inspiration for a musical movement? Surely temporal realities put paid to any claims of significance the song may have? Well, to an extent this argument is magnetic and unanswerable. But the truth is somewhat deeper. Countless albums throughout the history of popular music could have founded a genre. As it turned out (and hindsight is a wonderful thing), some did and some didn’t. What brings a small number of isolated musical coincidences together and helps bring about some sort of loose coalition is a mysterious process. It may be down to overlapping personnel or social change. But in the case of alt-country, the song “Goodbye” at least represented, and even encouraged, the growth and coalescence of alternative country as some kind of organic phenomenon.
Steve Earle’s presence on this recording is no accident, and it is certainly not another celebrity guest spot, adding little but an interesting name on the sleeve: he wrote “Goodbye” himself. He is there to pass on the soul of the song, the essence of its story, from one of America’s great songwriters to the country’s foremost interpreter and shaper.
The song starts with a gentle, unobtrusive acoustic guitar figure, played by Earle himself. There are then some tentative spoken words in the background, and then Earle’s Southern drawl emerges, sounding far more laid back than when he is assaulting us with his usual barrage of acerbic verbiage: “two…one, two, three, four.” On cue, the acoustic introduction is overlaid by a firm but delicate hit of producer Daniel Lanois’ sound, as a rolling, muted, electric band enters the fray. And with that, Earle hands over his tragic ballad to Emmylou Harris and Lanois, to do with it as they see fit. Earle has been quoted as saying that to have Harris perform one of your songs is the highest compliment a songwriter can be paid, and his humility comes through in those couple of seconds: here’s my song. It starts like this. Okay, now it’s yours. The end result is a combination of Earle’s song-writing abilities, and Harris’ genius for interpretation. And what a combination it is.
Steve Earle is one of the great American songwriters. He tells stories with good tunes, good music, and his tales have a genuine relation to the landscapes and personalities of his nation. He has been the perfect American rebel: from drugs and gun busts to jail and back, from single issue campaigning to campaigning politician, Earle’s life has provided some sort of parallel to his art, which progressed from the naive and triumphant escapism of Someday, through the grafting and fighting petty criminals of Copperhead Road, to the dramatic re-definition of patriotism that is Amerika V. 6.0.
Emmylou Harris, for her part, is not so much a songwriter as a country icon and, latterly, a superb interpreter of songs penned by others. Wrecking Ball gave an entirely new sonic dimension to country music, and this was particularly important when set against the backdrop of her history as one of the pioneering traditionalists of the country-rock movement of the early seventies. From the mid-nineties, she made a series of records which gave a new confidence to country artists: with her albums she instilled in these artists enough self-belief to open the door to a whole range of influences and allow their music to be cross-pollinated.
The story told by this song is simply beautiful, and so is Harris’ voice. Her tones seem to be at one with the words she is singing, as this terribly sad tale of loss unfolds. The narrator isn’t blaming anyone but himself; and with this self-flagellation comes a naked, almost unbearable honesty:
I remember holdin’ on to you
All them long and lonely nights I put you through
The song has a vague and ethereal quality that is, however, not without its specific events – however ill-described they are – to give substance to its heartbreaking claims.
But I recall all of them nights down in Mexico
One place I may never go
In my life again
Harris sings the song with a restrained sort of passion. You know that she feels the song fully and completely; but at the same time, as Earle holds back full details of what happened in those Mexican nights, what he did to destroy such a love, Harris holds back from giving her emotions free rein. She retains some semblance of control, represented by the high-pitched stridency she employs – you feel that if she were to let it all out, the whole story would doubtless emerge, and that is not the song’s intention.
In any case, it becomes gradually clearer that such emotional intensity would destroy her, because however tumultuous it would be if she were to divulge everything that took place, this revelation would be as nothing compared with the full realization, the full expression, of the ultimate horror: the isolated but colossal gap in her memory.
Most Novembers I break down and cry
’Cause I can’t remember if we said goodbye
So Harris’ vocal performance is restrained by the semi-transparent, semi-opaque story delivered by Steve Earle; and the musical direction of the recording reflects this tension. Once Earle has counted it in, a soft but insistent drum-beat underpins the song; the acoustic guitar continues but is just about submerged by the more electrified – though equally muted – patterns of the electric guitar and the bass. The whole ensemble maintains its sense of quiet, but at the same time there is urgency. As Harris sings of Mexico, the Caribbean and an evocative soft breeze, the band keeps itself at one with these images by taking the listener right there – across the plains from wherever they started out to each new location. But at the same time, the band keeps its distance from Harris, who remains within a high pitch register; at times it seems as if she wants to drag the band back to a more traditional country sound, with blunter rhythms, higher melodies and older instruments. But the band resists, and the result is a fantastically cross-fertilized sound. A country song, a country singer, an alternative feel.
So this recording of “Goodbye” is particularly important. Beautifully conceived and executed, it rolls across the listener’s consciousness, enforcing some kind of musical absorption which you don’t realize has taken place until the process is complete. But it is just as significant for what it represents: the fusion of the classic American songwriter and the born-again innovator. As we will see, alternative country music always has one or other of these aspects – and, when it is at its best, alt-country is precisely the combination of the two: great American songs recorded in an original and fresh musical style.
This is an excerpt from Mike Short’s unpublished book about alternative country music, Fearless Romantics, available from the author. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.