The country music industry loves to repackage things. First off, they rarely conceive of albums as anything more than hits, potential hits, and stuff the artist insists on recording that radio will never play. Second, greatest hits packages sell, particularly to the casual fan looking for the certain winners radio has promised them. Third, it means they’re no longer obliged to keep the artist’s albums in print.
For much of her career, Emmylou Harris has made honest albums, well worth hearing in their entirety as the carefully conceived work of an astute artist. She was duly anthologized by 1996′s three-disc Portraits, with which Anthology shares a third of its material.
So, other than to have a companion piece to Rhino’s two-disc Gram Parsons retrospective, why? It’s framed as a summation of Harris’ 15-year run (1975–90) with various incarnations of the Hot Band, but even that seems a facile, artificial limitation.
No, what makes Anthology attractive are its nods to fans who want more than a ten-song hits package. It restores three tracks from The Ballad Of Sally Rose to the digital world (leaving open the question why the whole album’s out of print) and tosses in a few B-sides, including Rodney Crowell’s “Precious Love”. Liner notes, by Holly George-Warren, are helpful.
Helpful until one turns to seek the guiding light behind song selection. Maybe it’s as simple as this: The purity of her voice, the serenity of her stage persona, and her apprenticeship with Gram Parsons have made it tempting to view Harris’ career as an extended exercise in iconoclastic artistic integrity. This Anthology is a reminder that she was (and is) many of those things, and also a significant commercial country music star.
A commercial country star with a spine, to be sure, but commercial nonetheless. The swirl of strings that introduces the first cut, Billy Sherrill’s “Too Far Gone”, makes that point quite eloquently. The sparkling harmonies of the next track, the Louvins’ “If I Could Only Win Your Love”, make the other, painfully obvious point: The woman can sing just about anything.
Nevertheless, nothing about the set seeks actively to recontextualize her work, and no spectacular surprises emerge among the odds and sods. It’s a perfectly fine introduction, if one’s needed, with enough breadth to suggest that the rest of her work be examined. But for the inevitable couple of tracks one would rather not revisit (in my case, “The Boxer” and “Mister Sandman”), no harm can possibly come of listening to more of Emmylou.