Saying Hello to Goodbye

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. Continue reading →