Already celebrated as a discoverer and interpreter of other artists’ songs, 12-time Grammy Award–winner Emmylou Harris has, in the last decade, become admired as much for her eloquently straightforward songwriting as for her incomparably expressive singing. On Hard Bargain, her third Nonesuch disc, she offers 11 original songs - three of them co-written with Grammy– and Oscar–winning composer Will Jennings - that touch on the autobiographical while reaching for the universal. She pays tribute to lost friends like her legendary mentor Gram Parsons (“The Road”) and her frequent collaborator, the late Kate McGarrigle (“Darlin’ Kate”), and also finds poignancy and fresh meaning in events both historical and personal. On “My Name Is Emmett Till” she recalls a pivotal act of violence during the civil rights movement in a heartbreakingly plain-spoken narrative, told from the victim’s perspective; on “Goodnight Old World,” she fashions a bittersweet lullaby to her newly born grandchild, contrasting a grown-up’s world-weariness with a baby’s wide-eyed wonder. Few in pop or country music have achieved such honesty or revealed such maturity in their writing. Forty years into her career, Harris shares the hard-earned wisdom that comes with getting older, though she never stops looking ahead.
The candour of Harris’s words is matched by a simple, elegantly rendered production from Jay Joyce (Patty Griffin, Jack Ingram, Cage the Elephant), with whom she’d previously recorded a theme for the romantic drama, Nights in Rodanthe. While Harris’ acclaimed 2008 All I Intended to Be was recorded intermittently over a span of three years and featured an all-star cast of musician friends, including Dolly Parton, Vince Gill, and the McGarrigles, Hard Bargain was cut in a mere four weeks last summer at a Nashville studio, with only Harris, Joyce, and multi-instrumentalist Giles Reaves. Joyce gets big results from this strikingly small combo: Harris played acoustic guitars and overdubbed all the harmonies; Joyce layered shimmering electric guitar parts; Reaves - employing piano, pump organ, and synths - conjures gorgeous atmospherics, often giving these tracks, as Harris puts it, “a floaty, dreamy quality.”
“It’s such a beautifully realized sound,” says Harris. “We didn’t have the need for anyone else with how versatile Giles and Jay are. We had become our own little family in the studio. Jay works really fast but he puts so much thought into what he does. I’ve been very lucky to work with so many great producers over the years and now I guess it was time to increase the stable.”