Deja Entendu, Emmylou

Finding High Fidelity

I was born listening to Emmylou Harris—not literally, though I suspect my parents had her records playing by the time I came home from the hospital. I remember carving pumpkins when “Wrecking Ball” came out, listening to “Red Dirt Girl” with my baby sister, and trying to convince my parents that Emmylou was actually singing about my uncle Dever in “Deeper Well.” Her music was present the way my extensive caterpillar toy collection and two cats were: an aspect of my childhood that I never appreciated or contemplated but merely accepted as a fact of life.

I grew up. I gave my 15-member caterpillar family to a younger cousin. My old cats died, and new cats took their places. I cut my hair and grew it out again, only to dye it red a few years later. I bought baggy camouflage jeans to mimic Avril Lavigne and eventually traded them in for a distressed pair from Abercrombie. An iPod replaced my Walkman, running replaced gymnastics, I had a negligible growth spurt, and I kept my nose to the grindstone. I went to college. And along the way, I lost Emmylou.

But everything changed last summer when I finally got my driver’s license. With a spare old car in the garage, the world was mine. I was a city girl seeing the world from behind the wheel for the first time. Somehow, on one of my first steps towards being a “real” adult, I rediscovered my childhood—long car rides are nothing without good music. I started looking through my dad’s massive CD collection for new tunes to carry me through daily jaunts and weekend trips, and, along the way, I alighted on the old Emmylou CDs.

There is something so amazingly surreal in seeing, hearing, or otherwise sensing an element from the past entering the present. These CDs were my childhood, even though I barely remembered those years. Yet this music ran deeper than memory—it was a feeling, and that was even more affecting. I tuned in, and this time I didn’t tune out. I really listened. And I liked what I heard.

My ears recalled what my visual memory could not, and through her songs, I began to reconstruct fragmented feelings from my childhood. The quality of her voice—aching, lonely, and breathy yet strong—was captivating and undeniably beautiful. She sang about heartbreak and death, childhood and dreams.

Experiencing this music for the first time in more than a decade conjured up an incredibly bizarre sense of déjà entendu. Hearing these songs as an adult felt rather like hearing them as a new person. Yet around every refrain, percussive beat, and soaring octave, I could see three year-old me dancing and singing along.

The songs were truer than I ever remembered. Two especially—“Red Dirt Girl” and “All My Tears”—stuck out for their melancholy and honesty. “Waiting for the Alabama sun to go down / Two red dirt girls in a red dirt town, me and Lillian,” Emmylou recalls about her childhood best friend. Lillian married young and got stuck in the very life she had always dreamed of escaping—and ultimately took her own life. “But one thing they don’t tell you about the blues when you got ‘em,” Emmylou sings, “You keep on falling ’cause there ain’t no bottom, there ain’t no end / At least not for Lillian.” It’s a song of dreams lost and the sheer depression of reality. I could nearly see the red dirt of an Alabama driveway and the hunched silhouette of a beanstalk-thin woman. I could feel the depression that Emmylou could only release through song.

My other great rediscovery was “All My Tears.” It wasn’t until my fifth or sixth enthusiastic listen that I realized I was singing the praises of Jesus at the top of my lungs while driving past my synagogue. Oops. “It don’t matter where you bury me / I’ll be home and I’ll be free,” she sings. “It don’t matter where I lay / All my tears be washed away.” This song—rhythmic, entrancing, and tender—reminded me that, in an age of constant and novel consumption, it often pays to revisit what once worked long ago. These songs have no Auto-Tune, music videos, mash-ups, or collaborators: they are simple and true and just as profound now as 20 years ago.

Slowly but surely, an ever-expanding collection of Americana music worked its way onto my playlists. Lucinda Williams, Crooked Still, Alison Krauss, and Gillian Welch rested comfortably next to my Beatles, Björk, and Kanye. “Since when have you listened to country?” all my friends wondered. “Since forever,” I realized—and forever more.

­—Staff writer Leanna B. Ehrlich can be reached at lehrlich@college.harvard.edu.

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