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Best Emmylou Harris Songs: 20 Great Tracks From A Country Icon
List & Guides

Best Emmylou Harris Songs: 20 Great Tracks From A Country Icon

From duets to covers and her own originals, the best Emmylou Harris songs chart the development of one of country music’s greatest singers.

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Since emerging with her debut album, Gilded Light, in 1969, Emmylou Harris has established herself as one of country music’s defining voices – a duet partner of choice for Gram Parsons, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt. As well as being one of the most celebrated song interpreters in American music, Harris has proven herself as a songwriter in her own right, especially in the latter years of her career. Here we look at 20 of the best Emmylou Harris songs.

Listen to the best of Emmylou Harris here, and check out our best Emmylou Harris songs, below.

20: Two More Bottles Of Wine (from ‘Quarter Moon In A Ten Cent Town’, 1978)

A foot-stompin’ bit of honky-tonk to kick off this run-down of the best Emmylou Harris songs, the raucous Two More Bottles Of Wine was written by Delbert McClinton and taken to the top of the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart by Harris. The lyrics are from the perspective of a woman who risked it all to chase her dream and move to Los Angeles with her partner, who subsequently left her in the lurch. It’s alright, though, she has something left – two bottles of wine.

19: Darkest Hour Is Just Before Dawn (from ‘Roses In The Snow’, 1980)

1980’s Roses In The Snow was Harris’ most traditional country album to date. On her version of Ralph Stanley’s bluegrass classic The Darkest Hour Is Before Dawn she recruited Ricky Skaggs on harmony vocals, fiddle and mandolin to bring out the yearning beauty of the song. Talking about the track to Hot Press in 1997, Harris said, “We look for those moments of great joy that are going to balance out those times of terrible sorrow and everything in between. I think you just have to go along for the ride with as much of your sense of humour and humanity intact as possible.”

18: To Know Him Is To Love Him (with Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt) (from ‘Trio’, 1987)

This Phil Spector cover topped the US country charts and was the first single from Trio, the hit album Harris made with Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt in 1987. Harris takes the lead while Parton and Ronstadt provide beautiful harmony vocals; their voices worked so well together that it’s a wonder it took the three country greats so long to collaborate on a full-length record. They’d record one more album together, Trio II, in 1999.

17: Darlin’ Kate (from ‘Hard Bargain’, 2011)

Harris wrote the touching Darlin’ Kate after the death of a friend, the songwriter Kate McGarrigle, in 2010. She told Spinner UK: “I didn’t set out to write it. I was fresh off experiencing Kate’s passing and her funeral, and I was just dealing with her absence. I was in a writing mode, when I picked up the guitar, the opening line just fell out. It’s really just a farewell letter. We all miss her and we grieve in our own way.”

16: Woman Walk The Line (from ‘The Ballad Of Sally Rose’, 1985)

The Ballad Of Sally Rose was a concept album, loosely based on Harris’ relationship with Gram Parsons, that she later described as a “country opera”. It was unusual in that 11 of its 13 songs were originals, co-written with her then husband Paul Kennerly – to this point, Harris had mostly interpreted others’ material. Woman Walk The Line marks the point in the story when cracks are beginning to appear in the relationship. Despite the strain, the central character, Sally Rose, is determined to stay strong, singing, “Yes I’m a woman and I’m lonely, but that don’t mean I can’t be strong” – lines that have made the track a feminist anthem among the best Emmylou Harris songs.

15: Blue Kentucky Girl (from ‘Blue Kentucky Girl’, 1979)

Written by Johnny Mullins and originally recorded by Loretta Lynn, in 1965, Blue Kentucky Girl became a hit for Harris 14 years later. Harris’ version is faithful to Lynn’s, though her vocal shows a touch more restraint. The narrator sings to the lover who’d left her “for the bright lights of the town”. She’s persuasively pleading with him to return, singing, “Just come on home to your Blue Kentucky Girl.” We never do find out if she succeeds. It’s a country heartbreaker topped off by a fantastic mandolin solo from Albert Lee.

14: Easy From Now On (from ‘Quarter Moon In A Ten Cent Town’, 1978)

Written by Susanna Clark and Carlene Carter, the opening track of Harris fourth solo album is a bittersweet kiss-off to a relationship. Effortlessly claiming its place among the best Emmylou Harris songs, Easy From Now On follows a woman escaping a partner who’d been nothing but trouble (“Loving him was a one-way street”). She knows it’s for the best, but is also only too aware that it’ll take time to get over him (“It’s going to be easy to fill the heart of a thirsty woman/Harder to kill the ghost of a no-good man”).

13: In My Hour Of Darkness (with Gram Parsons) (from ‘Grevious Angel’, 1974)

Talking about Gram Parsons in the sleevenotes to the 2006 box set The Complete Reprise Sessions, Harris said he was “an extraordinary young man who, more than anyone else, changed my life and set me on a wondrous road I never would have found by myself”. This co-write from Parsons’ second solo album, GP, is a country spiritual that reflects on friends lost and emphasises the way the two singers’ voices complemented each other.

12: I Will Dream (from ‘Stumble Into Grace’, 2003)

Co-written with Anna and Kate McGarrigle, I Will Dream is typical of the subtle wonders that make up 2003’s Stumble Into Grace. One of the best Emmylou Harris songs of the early 2000s, it’s a sublime tale of unrequited love that begins as spare, straightforward country weepie but grows steadily throughout, with instruments added to the mix and backing vocals from Jane Siberry, until it becomes something stirring and gospel-like.

11: Till I Gain Control Again (from ‘Elite Hotel’, 1975)

Songwriter Rodney Crowell might not have been well known when Harris met him after a Washington, DC, gig in 1975, but when he played her his songs, she recognised their quality. Till I Gain Control Again was one of the first songs Crowell performed for Harris, and she recorded her classic take on it for that year’s Elite Hotel. “It stunned me that someone that young could write something that sounds like it was from the ages,” Harris told The Guardian in 2018. “Till I Gain Control Again is made of pure, simple imagery, which are the hardest songs to write. That’s what is brilliant about the classic country songs: you can’t get too wordy.”

10: Together Again (from ‘Elite Hotel’, 1975)

One of the best-known songs by country giant Buck Owens, Together Again has been covered by a who’s who of musical greats, including Ray Charles, Glen Campbell and Wanda Jackson. Harris’ version stands tall among them – and among the best Emmylou Harris songs a whole. In her hands, it’s a tender reflection on the joy of reconciliation that showcases her outstanding vocals.

9: Leaving Louisiana In The Broad Daylight (from ‘Quarter Moon In A Ten Cent Town’, 1978)

Another Rodney Crowell gem, this one was co-written by Donivan Cowart and covered by Harris on 1978’s Quarter Moon In A Ten Cent Town. Harris’ Cajun-flavoured version features an all-star backing band, with regular sideman Albert Lee (mandolin, guitar) joined by Rick Danko (fiddle, backing vocals) and Garth Hudson (accordion) of The Band. Harris’ vocals blend brilliantly with the rough-hewn, soulful Danko, making the listener wish the pair had got together more often.

8: A Song For You (with Gram Parsons) (from ‘GP’, 1973)

A stand-out track from Gram Parsons’ debut album, this yearning cosmic country song is an early indicator of Parsons and Harris’ chemistry as duet partners, the latter’s spectral vocals securing A Song For You its place among the best Emmylou Harris songs. Harris later spoke to Interview magazine about the musical education she received early on in her and Gram’s partnership. “Singing harmony with him, and singing country, makes you do a very pure allegiance to the melody,” she explained. “Nobody’s interested in going off into the stratosphere and seeing what acrobatics you can do.”

7: Michelangelo (from ‘Red Dirt Girl’, 2000)

Harris began the new decade with an album that had more songs written solely by her than any of her records to date. A drifting, mystical-sounding dream diary of a tune, Michelangelo showed just how good the best Emmylou Harris songs could be. She spoke about the song in a 2012 interview with American Songwriter, revealing, “It came from a series of dreams. That’s another one of those songs that is a hodge-podge of my experiences. It was a baby that had to be born. Things that really affect your life become like DNA that happens after you’re born. It’s hard to put a finger on it. The thing about Michelangelo, it could be about anything you want. I like songs like that.”

6: Pancho And Lefty (from ‘Luxury Liner’, 1976)

Perhaps Townes Van Zandt’s most enduring song, Pancho And Lefty was first recorded by its writer on his 1972 album, The Late Great Townes Van Zandt. It tells the story of a Mexican bandit named Pancho and his friendship with Lefty, the man who will ultimately betray him. Harris had been an admirer of Van Zandt’s songs since opening a show for him in 1968, and she believed she made this one her own, as she told The Guardian: “People always ask: what’s that song about? I see it as: we make decisions in our lives that we regret, and Lefty had to live with those decisions. Townes recorded it, and I didn’t write it, but I always think that song is mine. I planted my flag right there. It became a very pivotal song in my repertoire.”

5: Orphan Girl (from ‘Wrecking Ball’, 1995)

After a lean patch, 1995’s shimmering Wrecking Ball (produced by Daniel Lanois) had a restorative effect on Harris’ career. Freed from the constraints of the country world and singing in a lower, smokier register, Harris won a whole new generation of fans. She also looked to the new breed of songwriters for inspiration, striking gold with Gillian Welch and David Rawlings’ brilliant Orphan Girl. “It blew my mind,” she told The Guardian. “It sounded like some old song dug up in a pile of old 45s. I definitely wanted to record it… What that song shows is how you can take a simple country song that is almost traditional, and – in the hands of a producer like Daniel – turn it into something that has a different kind of power.”

4: Love Hurts (with Gram Parsons) (from ‘Grievous Angel’, 1974)

Another standout from Grevious Angel, Love Hurts saw Parsons and Harris take on the Boudleaux Bryant standard and mine new levels of painful heartbreak from it. The pair sound as if they’re singing to each other, the listener eavesdropping on something intimate and powerful. “I discovered my own voice singing in harmony with Gram,” Harris later reflected. “There is something about the uniqueness of two voices creating a sound that does not come when they are singing solo, and I have always been fascinated by that. That song, and our harmony, is kind of a pinnacle of our duet-singing together.”

3: Evangeline (from ‘Evangeline’, 1981)

First performed with The Band at their 1976 farewell concert, The Last Waltz, Harris later made Evangeline the title track of her 1981 album. Songwriter Robbie Robertson told Musician magazine, “I’d written Evangeline as part of The Last Waltz Suite. We did it in the concert and we did some of the other things from the suite at the concert, too. But when we were done, it’s like all of these artists represented an element of popular music in their own right. Emmylou Harris was fresh and kind of represented a new school of the country music thing and also she’s very photogenic. She has a great relationship with the camera.” More than earning its place among the best Emmylou Harris songs, the version released on Evangeline features strong backing vocals from her future Trio collaborators, Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt.

2: Red Dirt Girl (from ‘Red Dirt Girl’, 2000)

The title track of Harris’ 2000 album was an instant classic – an atmospheric, smouldering tale of small-town life that Bruce Springsteen would have been proud to write. But it only just made the cut for the album, as Harris told Uncut in 2007. “I thought I was finished with the record, and I was driving back to New Orleans to tie up the loose ends when I saw this sign for Meridian, Mississippi, and I just started rhyming words in my head, and once I got to New Orleans, I couldn’t stop working on this song,” she said. “When I was writing it, I went to see Boys Don’t Cry [the 1999 biopic of murdered trans man Brandon Teena], and I got very affected by the lives of the minor characters, the small-town people, and the tragedy of the trap that they were caught in. There were also a lot of things from my life – images of the South. Lillian was the main character, but as the story was told by another red-dirt girl, I became the red-dirt girl, and that became the album title.”

1: Boulder To Birmingham (from ‘Pieces Of The Sky’, 1975)

Since his death, in 1973, Gram Parsons has been a source of inspiration for Harris, not least on Boulder To Birmingham, a beautiful elegy which tops our list of the best Emmylou Harris songs. The only track on her major-label debut album on which she took a co-wrote, it saw Harris attempting to weigh up the profound impact of her relationship with Parsons, and the effect his tragically early death had on her. She later explained to The Guardian, “That song was very important. Words can be so powerful to help you express something you otherwise can’t. And everyone has experienced loss, so even though the song is deeply personal, I can understand how people can relate to it, having lost someone who is very close to them.”

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