What’s In A Name: Emmylou Harris, “Mister Sandman”

At long last, the third installment of what’s turning into a very occasional series about the nine solo artists named Harris who hit the Billboard pop charts over the first thirty years of the rock era. (At this rate, I’ll finish about the time I turn 70, which suggests I should speed things up a bit.) As I’ve noted previously, the odd thing is that none of them hit the Top 40 more than once. This time around, it’s the most highly regarded (not to mention successful) musician of the nine, country legend Emmylou Harris. The source of inspiration? “Mister Sandman” is at #39 on this weekend’s 4/11/81 Premiere offering, embarking on a three-week ride that peaked at #37.

My write-ups about Tony Harris and Major Harris attempted to provide a bit of biography because of their relative obscurity, and also because there just wasn’t much out there. Since this isn’t the case for Emmylou Harris, I’ll largely content myself with a few choice passages about her courtesy of Stereo Review, since that’s where I would mostly have learned about her. A quick perusal of the SR archives reveals an article by Carol Offen in December 1975 (which summarizes Harris’s life and career up to her breakthrough LP Pieces of the Sky, including her serendipitous introduction to and work with Gram Parsons) and at least a half-dozen Best of the Month, Recordings of Special Merit, and featured reviews, all courtesy of Harris mega-fan Noel Coppage.

From the Offen article, a quote: “I’d rather have somebody come see me and, instead of going out and buying my album, go buy a Louvin Brothers album and experience what I experienced the first time I heard it. I would really get off on that.”

As for Coppage…
–on Pieces of the Sky (BotM, 6/75): “Emmylou’s voice is smooth, it has good range and a lovely tone that shimmers on the high notes, and she complements all this with a folksinger’s straightforward phrasing.”
–on Elite Hotel (RSM, 5/76): “..she simply doesn’t need quirky songs or chestnuts everyone knows by heart, just a few that really say something she can wholeheartedly connect with…”
–on Blue Kentucky Girl (BotM, 5/77): “Harris has prodigious talent as a singer, and more than enough style to make her the absolute owner of a song once she’s recorded it. She also has good instincts about what kinds of songs go together…”
–on Evangeline (BotM, 6/81): “…she is one of the few singers around now who give the (probably accurate) impression that they won’t do songs they don’t identify with, let alone don’t like, even if it means going without hits.”

Coppage died in late 1982, and his final reviews appeared in the March 1983 issue. Appropriately, those include one for Late Date, a live Harris album.

Despite the high praise from Coppage, despite rave reviews of later albums such as Wrecking Ball and Red Dirt Girl, I remain almost completely ignorant of Harris’s body of work. My excuse back in the late 70s/early 80s was that country music outside of Waylon Jennings wasn’t much my thing. Later, though? Now? It’s just an outright unforced error that I’m more familiar with “Emmylou” by First Aid Kit than any of the real Emmylou’s songs. I expect that to change, and soon.

I feel certain that Casey mentioned on one of those April 1981 shows that Emmylou first recorded “Mister Sandman” with Linda Ronstadt and Dolly Parton. For years I didn’t realize that the take on the single was all Emmylou, harmonizing with herself–Ronstadt’s and Parton’s record companies wouldn’t allow the trio’s version to be released on a 45. It was on Evangeline, however; I’m thinking Kasem played the album cut at least once?

See which one you favor.

2 thoughts on “What’s In A Name: Emmylou Harris, “Mister Sandman””

  1. Belated confirmation incoming: yep, Casey mentioned the two different versions of Emmylou’s “Mister Sandman” on the 4/25/81 show, and played the LP version that week.

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