A lot of autobiographical stuff here, I’m afraid. Feel free to skip (quite) a few paragraphs, to get to the song!…
I can carbon date my love for this song to that time, mid seventies, after graduation; I still lived with my parents; I worked for the DHSS in a big office on Newport Road in Cardiff. It was a funny old time. I often stayed in the city after work and caught the train home late. There were things to see –I mentioned in an earlier essay about discovering opera (see no 13 ‘Now the Great Bear and the Pleiades’) But there were concerts, too, in Cardiff’s Capitol theatre – saw the Beach Boys there one night, and Donovan in his ‘intergalactic laxative’ phase. Enough said. And there was a funny couple of months when I hung around town because I was visiting a Trichologist. Yes. Blame my mother for this one: my premature hair loss was of great concern to her, and when I declined her suggestion to ‘rub half an onion over my scalp and bury the other half’ (??), she then cut out for me an advert from the South Wales Echo for a clinic on Cardiff’s Queen Street, which for a modest fee would cure the problem of premature baldness. On her encouragement, I went along (and hey, it worked a treat, clearly!) I won’t go into the detail of treatments here but part of it involved a fairly noxious-smelling potion. For everyone’s sake, I felt that wandering around town for a few hours would give my head’s smell a chance to wear off.
The relevance of all the self indulgent reminiscing, you may ask? OK, I’m getting there. One of the places I ended up ‘hanging around’ was a newly opened fairly trendy hamburger restaurant –can’t remember its name now –which played some really interesting music, which I suppose now that we might identify as ‘Americana’. There was stuff like the Eagles, I think, country-tinged stuff I might not have paid attention to much up until then. But I think this is where I first heard Emmylou Harris’s voice. The Beatles’s covers blew me away – ‘For No One’, ‘Here, there and everywhere’… But wow, that voice.
Then suddenly, of course, she was everywhere. The music mags – NME, Melody Maker -showed pics of this cowboy-boot woman and raved about her music. Did I perhaps hear her as a fabulous backing voice on Dylan’s ‘Desire’ before I heard her solo performances? I can’t remember. But I remember an appearance on ‘The Old Grey Whistle Test’ and suddenly too, Country seemed to have shed something of its redneck right wing conservative image and become sort of cool.
No doubt it helped too that the lady was pleasing to the eye, in a simpler and more fashionable way than most ‘country gals’: she in no way presented herself as a Tammy or a Lorretta (etc) – there was no primped-up hairdo, no mawkish sentimentality or TV show-smiles either in her introductions or in her performances. And ah, that voice, that voice… which of course has been much commented upon since those days. While, yes, it has a distinctive listenability, its uniqueness also relies undoubtedly upon a peculiar ‘catch’ in her register which adds, as some have said, a note of ‘ache’ or ‘heartbreak’, and therefore is ideally suited to tender songs of love, longing, and loss. Which brings us almost to the song!
But before then, back to memoirs. Towards the end of my two year stretch in the civil service I was encouraged to seek promotion. I went along to an interview in Bristol (a bit of a waste of time, since I had already planned to leave the job in a couple of months’ time). My memory of the interview is that, having just read a book about the beginnings of the charity ‘Shelter’, I talked at length about the problem of homelessness in the UK. Probably nothing to do with the question they asked me.
I came out of the interview and wandered around Bristol in an oddly euphoric mood. In a record shop, I purchased Emmylou Harris’s ‘Pieces of the Sky’ album, because it seemed the right thing to do. Back home that evening, I played it and played it. There’s not a bad track on the album; even Dolly Parton’s ‘Coat of many colours’ seemed to be redeemed from something twee into something noble… But THIS song, ‘ Boulder to Birmingham’,this self penned songs of hers (OK, alongside some other bloke) brought prickles down the spine, tears to the eyes.
I had no idea about the inspiration for the song. I didn’t know then that it was about the grief of losing Gram Parsons; but you get it from the weariness of the opening declaration ‘ ‘I don’t want to hear a love song..’; you get it almost impressionistically, even through those images ‘this airplane… the wilderness… the canyon… on fire’ you get a sense of someone struggling to give expression to a fierce kind of sadness (‘The last time I felt like this…’). It’s there in the repetitions at the end of the two verses – ‘watched it burn… watched it burn’ then ‘coming down to wash me clean…wash me clean’ – somehow a kind of need for catharsis. It’s there most poignantly in that enigmatic chorus with its oddly ‘spiritual’ allusions – ‘my soul…bosom of Abraham…. saving grace’ and the longing in the conditional ‘if I thought I could see.. your face’.
Well I’ve said that was the most poignant, but perhaps that’s not true – on a conscious level I feel I hardly listened to the lyrics, certainly not initially in the analytical way that previous paragraph suggests! Because, really, most telling of all was the voice that handles the lyric and that pretty exquisitely sympathetic melody. It still feels like a classic, doesn’t it?
Emmylou has aged gracefully, opted for silver locks instead of dark dye; and kept on singing. With a kind of modest sensitivity she seems to have become a ‘duetter’ for many other performers, and when she does, always enhances the sound. You might remember her, for instance, in the first of the wonderful ‘Transatlantic Sessions’ duetting with Mary Black on Sandy Denny’s ‘By the Time it gets Dark’. OK, just joining in on the refrains, but there’s that kind of understated shiver of silver which her accompaniment adds to others’ performances. I’ve never seen her live, and I don’t know if she still performs ‘Boulder to Birmingham’ but it’s enough that we have that enduring recording on her first solo album. Amen.