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Harris could easily be talking about her own body of work. Although she's known as a country singer, she's defined the genre very much in her own terms. Ask '70s arena rockers Nazareth, for example, whether "Love Hurts" -- a Boudleaux Bryant song Harris performed with Parsons on 1974's Grievous Angel -- is country music. Ask Phil Spector, creator of "To Know Him Is to Love Him," which Harris recorded with Parton and Ronstadt on Trio; or Lennon and McCartney, whose "Here, There and Everywhere" showed up on 1975's Elite Hotel; or Paul Simon, who wrote "The Boxer," which Harris sang on 1980's Roses in the Snow; or Bruce Springsteen -- his "The Price You Pay" graces 1981's Cimarron. Or ask Jimi Hendrix, whose "May This Be Love" shimmers on Wrecking Ball. If Harris's Birmingham drawl brands such songs as country, its grainy edge also places those such as the traditional "Wayfaring Stranger," from Roses in the Snow, or Townes Van Zandt's outlaw story "Pancho & Lefty," from 1977's Luxury Liner, out in a harsh, contemporary wilderness.
Harris credits Parsons with helping her learn how to use her voice "as an emotional instrument, learning how to sing with the economy of phrasing inherent in country music -- I don't have a traditional-sounding country voice, and following those guidelines allowed me to find the particular sweet spot -- not just in my voice technically, but also emotionally, because I never limited myself to just traditional country songs."
And that most recent "Sweet Spot" -- the one currently in rotation on KBCO -- is testimony enough to Harris's eclecticism. A track off of Western Wall/The Tucson Sessions, this summer's album of duets with Linda Ronstadt, the song is starkly minor-keyed; against only an eerie three-note baritone guitar repetition and a quiet, almost "Funky Drummer" background, Harris sings odd couplets such as "Baby, when you're growing old, I'll be your solid gold" and "When you want to play along, I'll be your Mah Jong"; there's no real chorus, except the occasionally repeated "I'll be your sweet spot." Harris harmonizes with herself alongside Ronstadt's subtle echo; at one point the harmony is simply one of them -- it's impossible to tell who -- whispering into the microphone.
The sound is newer than anything playing on the nearest modern-rock/alternative radio station. Harris gives all of the credit to her "Sweet Spot" co-writer, Luscious Jackson's Jill Cuniff. Cuniff doesn't play on the track, but it was the sound of her demo that producer Glyn Johns tried to re-create. "Her stamp is all over that sound," Harris says. "I would have never, ever come up with a melody or groove like that." But the fact that a couple of women-over-fifty make such startlingly fresh noise playing music energized by a young hipster is further testimony to those fertile bloodlines. Also responsible is Johns, who has worked with artists ranging from the Who and the Rolling Stones to Midnight Oil and Belly and who Harris says "could be the greatest recording engineer in the history of pop music. He laid down the rules of what things were supposed to sound like, and he believes in miking things right from the get-go, getting it live off the floor. Then you go back and get a little, but you don't obsess over it. It's a beautifully, beautifully recorded record. Linda and I turned the whole thing over to Glyn, and as long as we had material that we liked, we knew he was going to get it on tape as good as you could get it."
That includes a take on Leonard Cohen's "Sisters of Mercy" that sounds only a little bit like something you'd hear at the nearest Renaissance festival; more typical is a striking trio of cuts toward the end of the album. There, Harris and Ronstadt's harmonies sound like a warm, heavy rain on Patty Griffin's desperate surrender, "Falling Down"; that's followed by Harris's tragic but sinewy lead vocal on Patty Scialfa's you-can-leave-town-but-you-can't-outrun-yourself "Valerie"; finally, the two women promise to serve as that cosmic though eternally elusive figure, the perfect mother -- unconditionally comforting, always protective, able to remove pain and mistakes, a nearly erotic presence -- in Sinéad O'Connor's "This Is to Mother You." Griffin and O'Connor are two of their generation's most raw singer-songwriters, while Scialfa -- Bruce Springsteen's sexy backup singer and wife, as well as the mother of his children and a singer-songwriter in her own right -- may in fact be that ultimate mother figure.
"I was so delighted that we did that song," Harris says of the Scialfa track. "Her songs are pretty raw, too. She's a pretty great writer. Her solo record [1993's Rumble Doll] is very underrated -- I loved the sound of the record. She created a whole sonic and emotional world that was totally her own, and I thought it was a shame that it came and went and people still think of her as Mrs. Bruce Springsteen, but obviously, that's the price you pay." As a harmony singer herself, Harris especially appreciates Scialfa's work. "Some people who sing harmonies have voices that are very chameleon-like -- they're like mortar, and if you hear the voice by itself, it doesn't have character. She has an extraordinarily distinctive voice, yet has this ability to blend -- I would love to hear her singing with other people, too. Certainly the marriage of voices with her and Bruce is astonishing. I just saw her again when I was on tour with Linda. I took a train down to a show in Washington, D.C., and they did 'Mansion on the Hill,' and it tore me up, it was so exquisitely beautiful."