After a long career primarily as an interpreter of other people's songs, Emmylou Harris took stock a few years back and decided to write an album of her own material. The result is "Red Dirt Girl," a surprisingly raw and confessional collection in which Harris chronicles a disastrous, passionate relationship, the telling of which borders on religious catharsis. Harris' pristine image gets a gritty makeover with the carnal intimations of "I Don't Wanna Talk About It Now," and elsewhere her self-revelation can be almost uncomfortably direct.
Producer Malcolm Burn hews closely to the gospel according to Daniel (Lanois, that is, producer of Harris' previous studio effort, "Wrecking Ball") murky layers of distorted guitars weaving in and out, punctuated by deep, throbbing bass and percussion evocative of the rituals of some future tribe. But while a distant, ominous pulse throughout sets an appropriately brooding atmosphere, the effect is eventually undermined by overuse and a lack of melodic variety that guest collaborators such as Rodney Crowell and Guy Clark don't do much to alleviate.
Still, the strong first half of "Red Dirt Girl" makes a legitimate case for Harris' transition from gifted vocalist to artistic voice. Her yearning, lonesome essence has been further distilled in these ineffably sad songs of lost opportunities and broken dreams, especially in the title track, about a woman whose pluck and resilience are not enough to break the vise of bad luck and bad choices. Harris' geographic specificity in telling the story (variations on the refrain "just across the line and a little southeast of Meridian") only intensifies the sense of isolation and loneliness, and in moments such as these her unflinching gaze and lovely, weary delivery carry the day, or perhaps in this case, the night.
Doc Watson/"Foundation: The Doc Watson Instrumental Guitar Collection"
Although the guitar has long been the emblem of folk music, few of its early practitioners actually exploited the instrument beyond strumming chords in accompaniment. But among the few who did, Doc Watson stands as a monument of inventiveness and virtuosity. Now 77, Watson was the first to adapt the fiddle tunes at the core of the bluegrass idiom to the guitar, taking the instrument out of the background and putting it front and center, often solo, with a sparkling, rigorously precise flatpicking technique that is as fiendishly difficult as it is exciting all the more remarkable for the fact that Watson has been blind since his youth.
But until now fans of his guitar playing have had to cobble together tapes of the two or three instrumentals per album from among mostly vocal selections, a problem that has been elegantly remedied by the release of this, the first of four Watson retrospective CDs. The handsome package and excellent liner notes show due appreciation for Watson's legacy, but even in a brown paper wrapper this collection would be essential for anyone with an interest in acoustic steel-string guitar. Aficionados will regret the omission of the classic "Beaumont Rag," but flatpicking touchstones such as "Black Mountain Rag" and "Salt River" and the dazzling fingerpicking of "Doc's Guitar" demonstrate the power and control that put Doc Watson in the most rarefied of company.