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on April 26, 2011
Emmylou Harris has many admirers, but my wife and I may be the only ones who chose our wedding date based on her tour schedule. It wasn't that we were following her around like a couple of Deadheads --- we wanted Buddy Miller, then her lead guitarist, and his wife Julie to give a mini-concert for the guests at our wedding.

We spent just enough time with the Millers that weekend to grill them about Emmylou. They had no dish --- really, they had almost nothing to say about her. And they explained why: Emmylou Harris is an unspeakably nice person.

Her twitches are minor: baseball, her dogs, and if there's a third one, I've forgotten it. After three marriages, she lives in Nashville with her mother and brother. She has a shelter for rescued dogs in her yard.

Her career reads equally saintly. Over 40 years and 25 records and a dozen Grammys, she's followed her instincts, and, in the process, avoided sudden spikes and tumbles. She has graced hundreds of records as a celestial back-up singer and duet partner. The verdict is generous: There are, a critic has said, no bad Emmylou Harris records --- only good ones and better ones.

"Hard Bargain" is one of the better ones. Recorded in just a month with only three musicians, its first distinction is that Emmylou wrote 11 of the 13 songs. This is unusual --- it's only the third release on which she's been the dominant writer. The second distinction is that she's 64 now, and, like a lot of people who have hit their sixties, she can't quite grasp where the time went. And why people who have been important to her --- Gram Parsons and Kate McGarrigle, most prominently --- can be located only in memory.

This is a CD of deep feeling: sad memory, deep loss, specific regret. But it's not self-indulgent or maudlin --- if anything, the music is unusually jaunty. Very much like the new Paul Simon CD. And like Simon, she's reached a place where she can see far and she can see wide --- without trading sharp observation or wry insight for boomer platitude.

It's tricky to interview an icon. Fame at that level is a shield; you can't get in, she can't get out. It's tough enough with actors. It's much tougher with an Emmylou Harris, because everything about her --- that crystalline voice, that forever gray hair --- suggests that she's some kind of living saint. When we chatted on the phone, that seemed like a good place to start.

Jesse Kornbluth: I've been listening to you --- and reading about you --- for decades, and it occurred to me: I know nothing about you that you don't want me to know. How have you achieved that? A flawless life? Or total discretion?

Emmylou Harris: A flawless life, absolutely. The only time I ever appeared in the Enquirer was for a piece about people who let their hair grow gray. I guess I'm not much of a wild child.

JK: Buddy Miller says that he feels what he plays is "country" and that stuff they play on the radio is "alternative." Given that he was your guitarist, on and off, for a decade, it's no stretch to say that applies equally to you. Where are you with country music and/or Nashville?

EH: I'm nowhere with country music. I don't hear much of it, so I shouldn't venture an opinion, but when it finds me, it seems formulaic. I don't hear anyone who moves me like George Jones or Bill Monroe. The country that you hear on the radio, it feels poppy but without the originality of pop.

JK: Do you miss your country years?

EH: I had my run. It served me well. Country taught me how to sing, it put me on a path. But I was never going to be locked into a formula. I don't want to be considered a current country artist.

JK: Still, you live in Nashville. Go out much?

EH: I'm going out tonight to present an award to Kris Kristofferson and see a free movie.

JK: What about tomorrow night?

EH: Normally I don't go out. I run a dog rescue shelter.

JK: Topic change: your new CD. On which you do your own backup vocals. Is this a first?

EH: No, but I've never sung backup on all the songs before.

JK: Musically, is it more of a challenge?

EH: As an experience, it's easier to harmonize with yourself than with others. But I still judge it by the same standards --- if I didn't sound good or we needed a different color, we'd bring someone in.

JK: You've spoken of going from gig to gig on your bus: "I'm like a trench soldier, I've been out there on the bus." After all these years, do you ever look at rock stars and think, "I'd kill for their plane?"

EH: I love the bus! You can spread out. You have your books. You can sleep when you want, have company when you feel like it. And you can take your dogs. I wish I'd realized that earlier --- it's only in the last 15 years that I've taken them with me on the bus. They're such a joy --- they keep you in the present.

JK: When I think of you, I think of Virgil's line: "Admire a large vineyard, cultivate a small one." By which I mean: You've always been hungry for the music --- not the fame.

EH: You must have somebody listening. I have just enough people paying attention that I have the freedom to be in charge. And I have a great record company --- Nonesuch understands what I'm about.

JK: Paul Simon, who's 69, says, "When I'm in the music, I'm no age." And as a performer, you too have achieved around 40 years of visible past. No surprise that your new CD is drenched in time --- time as a force, almost a character. How heavy does that feel?

EH: Paul's right --- time is light when I'm making music. Other times it ranges from heavy to inconsequential. But the press of time? It's always there. And it's sometimes a wonder --- I can't believe that I'm at this age and still working and have all these things I want to do. In that, I'm lucky. I'm healthy and in better shape than I was 30 years ago.

JK: Energy, creative spark, opportunity --- so why name the CD "Hard Bargain?"

EH: Just being in the world is a hard bargain. Everything has a price, a blessing and a curse. It's relentless. We can't really resist life --- we're pulled back into it.

JK: What's the reward?

EH: The reward is that we're here.
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on April 26, 2011
Hard Bargain is Emmylou Harris' first release in almost 3 years and it was worth the wait! Her vocals are smooth as honey and hugely emotive and her voice still has that irresistible frail breathlessness. The songs are well written with meaningful lyrics and the music, as always, is beautiful and intuitive. It's hard to believe there are only 3 musicians, including Harris, making all the music. Long, weeping fiddle notes and chunky, contemplative piano chords are balanced only by the occasional tentative brightness of a banjo or mandolin. The percussion is distant, if there at all, but always clever. "Darlin' Kate" is about her close friend Kate McGarrigle who died last year of cancer. "The Road" looks back to her formative years spent with the late Gram Parsons at the start of her career. "Big Black Dog" is inspired by her animal shelter philanthropy and is the only almost-happy song on the album. "My name is Emmett Till is the true story of a 14 year old black boy killed in Mississippi for talking to a white woman. Overall the strength and sincerity of Harris' songs make this just another reason to love and respect her.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon April 26, 2011
In recent years the trilogy of records produced by a completely rejuvenated Emmylou Harris, which starts with the wonders of "Wrecking Ball," climaxes with the brilliant "Red Dirt Girl", and gently lands with the lovely "Stumble into grace" amounted to a peak in Americana music. Harris could barely put a foot wrong and the awards flowed like wine. There have since been a couple of missteps on the way since this reviewer is not a huge fan of her collaboration with Mark Knoplfer yet particularly enjoyed the fine covers on "All I intended to be" (although not all the originals).

Many have questioned whether Emmylou Harris is an artist who sings other people's songs better than she writes her own? In a recent interview with NPR she admitted that songwriting doesn't come easy for her: "It's the fear of writing that's still there with me," Consequently with the majority of tracks on "Hard Bargain" self penned does Harris conquer her fear. The answer is yes in most cases but with a couple of songs that absolutely stand out. Her heartbreaking requiem for her dear departed friend the great folk singer Kate Anna McGarrigle is one example and possibly one of the finest tunes she has written. When "she sings that you are sailing now/ free from the pain" it would take a very cold heart not to be deeply moved by its sentiment. Another even closer friend Gram Parsons is again the key subject of the opener "The Road". She has been here before of course not least in "Boulder to Birmingham" her poignant ode capturing the depth of her shock and pain at losing Parsons. While "The Road" is perhaps not in that class, her unique breathy vocals combined with a rock steady beat is a joy and the song's bridge takes it to new levels.

Other noteworthy songs include the shuffling earthy blues of "Six white Cadillac's", the atmospheric country of "Lonely girl", the rocky "New Orleans" and the excellent cover of Ron Sexmith's "Hard Bargain". That said the straightforward country homage to a "Big black dog" has a novelty value but little else and while the waltz like "Goodnight old world" is fine it does drag. On the basis of concluding with a strong finish the final two tracks "Nobody" and "Cross Yourself" are excellent. They echo a Daniel Lanois style production except that album producer Jay Joyce writes "Cross Yourself" and his pop-related song is a splendid ending. One gripe is quite why her cover of the Low Anthem's alt country classic "To Ohio" sung together with the bands maestro Ben Knox Miller is confined to the deluxe album. This is a outright mystery since it is the best duet that Harris has done since her seminal vocal on Ryan Adams glorious "My Sweet Carolina" and you must promise to seek this out.

Throughout the musicianship is "best in class" and "Hard Bargain" represents a fine collection of songs. In the last analysis its probably not as good as either "Wrecking ball" or "Red Dirt Girl' but frankly there aren't many albums that could come within a hundred miles of their brilliance. Thus "Hard Bargain" is another fine contribution from Emmylou Harris a singer we should cherish and give thanks that unlike many of her contemporaries she remains a constant source of deeply moving music.
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on May 10, 2011
For starters, I have been listening to Emmylou Harris non-stop since she was playing in small local bars and venues in the Washington DC area in the early '70s. Some of her albums and many, many of her songs are are among the best I've ever heard. The downfall of this album can be attributed to 3 factors: A horrible bass heavy mix (the producer should be shot for this mess) that completely overpowers the vocals. The least musical band I've heard on any Emmylou album...robotic drumming like a bad karaoke machine, lifeless bass lines. Generally weak songwriting. I had been looking forward to this with great anticipation. This CD is going to be collecting dust in my listening room for a long while.
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on May 4, 2011
This album is gorgeous. The strongest numbers are the tributes to deceased colleagues. My favorite track at the moment is Big Black Dog. If you love the sad, aching, poignant Emmylou, this album is a must-have. Each track is slow and sad and gorgeous. As I was listening the first time through, I kept thinking maybe the next track would be uptempo and bouncy, but no. It's always so slow and sad and so beautiful that you might want to worship her technique and her writing abilities. Her famous mannerisms (the broken voice, the nasal whine) are not here this time. She displays a purity and beauty that should please even her harshest critics. New Orleans (about the Katrina aftermath) is very moving and powerful. The Road (for Gram Parsons) is perfect. Darlin' Kate is also a slow, sad tearjerker. I wish I could have an angelic singer-songwriter to create gorgeous material about me when I die. Great job, Emmylou!
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VINE VOICEon April 26, 2011
"Hard Bargain" is an album that features eleven new songs. Emmylou has never sounded better. Her voice conveys warmth, joy and empathy on these tracks. "Hard Bargain" is about having the strength to move on in life despite feeling weary. I like the banjo playing on this song. "New Orleans" is an up tempo song about the resilience of the city of New Orleans. "Big Black Dog" is an enjoyable song about finding homes for homeless dogs. "Nobody" is a song about feeling comfortable about being single. This song is also about having hope that love is right around the corner. "My Name is Emmett Till" is a song about a black teenager who was killed in 1955 for talking to a white woman. Emmylou is a great story teller. This song proves it. Emmett Till death started the civil rights movement and the call for peace. Emmylou conveys this in the song. Her vocals are very moving on this song. "The Road" is a song about Emmylou's singing partner Gram Parsons who died in 1973. This tune is about the special relationship they had with each other. "Ship on His Arm" is the best love song on this album. This song is very pretty. It is the first song that contains a reference to a tattoo in it. "Six White Cadillacs" is a song that puts me in a good mood. I love the spirited tone of this song. "Darlin' Kate" is a beautiful song about saying farewell to a loved one. The musical arrangements of this song are so beautiful. "Goodnight Old World" is a song that gives me a sense of peace. "Home Sweet Home" is a song that makes me appreciate my home. Emmylou caresses every note on this song perfectly. This song is very pleasant. "Cross Yourself" has a spiritual tone that I really like. "Lonely Girl" is a lovely tune. Emmylou's voice makes me feel a sense of empathy for all the lonely girls in the world. This is a very enjoyable album from Emmylou Harris.
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VINE VOICEon May 30, 2011
Emmylou Harris has a voice unlike no other. I don't even think that is open to debate. Like it or hate it, she sings like no one else and it has been this way for what, 35-40 years? Personally, I love her voice.

Normally, I like Harris as a music interpreter as opposed to doing her own material, but now and again she shines in this aspect. With 'Hard Bargain', she succeeds and fails depending on the track. While it has gotten stellar reviews, I find it a bit uneven myself.

There are great great songs, like "The Road" (a tribute to her mentor, Gram Parsons), the gritty and fun "Six White Cadillacs" (though the iTune video version is even better!), the title track, "Goodnight Old World" and "Cross Yourself".

I know I should like "Darlin' Kate", but it is just ok. Same with "My Name is Emmett Till". But I find them to be just fair and I'm left wanting more. I'm all for Harris' dog rescue program, but "Big Black Dog" just does not fit here.

I am impressed that the disk is just Harris and two other musicians. I think that takes great talent to do this. I might have liked to hear Anna McGarrigale's backing vocals, but Harris took those out and sang her own harmonies. Still, it sounds good.

Harris has done more with her own work ('Stumble into Grace', 'Red Dirt Girl'), so I expected and wanted more from this disk. Don't get me wrong, it's good - better than most anything released this year, but I still expected and wanted better.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon April 26, 2012
Emmylou wrote most of the lyrics for the songs on this album;and she wrote them from her heart and soul.She tells us through these songs that her hife has been a "hard bargain".Yes,she has had her trials and tribulations,but by baring her thoughts and soul in these songs;she is not asking for sympathy.
I have been a fan of her and her music for over 25 years,and have always felt that her music was ,above all else,true to herself.This has never been more evident than in these songs.
I really enjoyed many of the Reviews here,some I did not agree with,but everyone is entitled to their opinion.
A lot of the reviews were less than enthused with the music,and felt that it drowned out Emmylou's,magnificent and distinctive voice.With that I agree,but be that as it may,I still feel her excellent voice more than offsets that.I reacall an interview with Emmylou where she said she wished they would get their music out of the studios and back in the living rooms where it came from and belongs.I wish she had done that here,as it would have enhanced her songs.
The songs are very sad and lonely and straight from the soul and experiences Emmylou has had with the people who meant so much in her life.For that reason,it is unlikely that many of these songs will be recorded by other artists.It wouldn't make sense because there is no denying ;these are her songs,and would lack believeability if sung by others.
My only hope is that Emmylou's life has had her share of rewards and happiness along with the sadness and loneliness conveyed in this album--God knows she deserves it.

By the way,the CD comes with a booklet with all the lyrics to all the songs--you'll need it because the music drowns out many of Emmylou's words.
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on May 3, 2011
or maybe red dirt girl. i love the writing and production. as usual, these days with e.h., i sometimes have a hard time understanding the words - the combo of emmylou's sometimes-breathy style can get drowned out, and she's never been a stickler for ennunciation. but hey, i got the lyrics in my hand and i love her writing, etc, etc, etc.
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on May 18, 2011
I have listened to Emmylou Harris since the days of Gram Parsons. I've aged with the music and style. It took some adjustment to go from the Hot Band Era to the Daniel Lanois Era. The period of 15 years since Wrecking Ball has matured her style and music in a very positive way. There is a "shelf life" to some music in my opinion. I think the new album could endure the test of time because it speaks to so much change in Emmylou and in our country.It's sentimental yet questioning as well and just plain fun with " Big Black Dog".The artistry in this one is just special. I hope all the potential buyers and listeners enjoy "Hard Bargain" as much as I have and will in the future
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