Tuesday, April 1, 2014

DB's Song of the Day (day 91):"BOY FROM TUPELO" (2000), Emmylou Harris

Happy April Fool’s Day! I’m rather partial to the month of April, in general, so let’s hope it inspires some good song selections.

Today’s song is a great “I’m moving on” song, and it follows, in the Song of the Day series, on a song by Elvis Presley, rightly so. Elvis, of course, is “that boy from Tupelo / He’s the king and he oughta know.” And tomorrow is the birthday of Emmylou Harris, so that makes this a fitting choice.

Emmylou Harris first came to my notice for singing back-up on records by other artists I bought, such as Bob Dylan’s Desire (1975) and Neil Young’s American Stars 'n' Bars (1976). I didn’t listen to her own albums until she recorded with Daniel Lanois, Wrecking Ball (1995), and only got to that after 2000’s Red Dirt Girl, which is the album to go to, by her, in my opinion. There are some accomplished compositions on there, not least today’s song. The production of the album is a bit too sanitized perhaps, but, given what Country music had become by then, that wasn’t such a problem. The video shows her singing it live and I like the little smile she gives at the verse “I’ll never know why or how / Oh, but baby, it’s too late now.” Emmylou has a firm, unimpassioned voice, very measured, very discrete, as we might say. She never wails, she never lets go. Very prim, but “clear as an unmuddied stream.”

The song, in the studio version, hums along with big drums doing the work of communicating the rhythm of the road as our very-together gal takes her parting shots: “You don’t love me, this I know / Don’t need a Bible to tell me so / I hung around a little too long / I was good, but now I’m gone.”  Adios, amigo.

How gone? As Johnny Carson might ask.  “Gone like the buffalo / That boy from Tupelo.”  And “gone like the five and dime.” We’re talking really gone. Or are we? Aren’t these things kinda like national symbols of something or other? This little lady knows that as she goes away she leaves behind a big myth. A mighty big myth.

Emmylou and Gram
This kind of passive-aggressive adios really peaks when she owns that “It’s a shame and it’s a sin / All that I could’ve been / To you”: “Your last chance Texaco / Your sweetheart of the rodeo / A Juliet to your Romeo / The border you cross into Mexico.”  That shit’s inspired. This gets even more mythic—the “last chance Texaco” is the one before you hit the badlands, “sweetheart of the rodeo” is The Byrds album dominated by Gram Parsons, Emmylou’s first big collaborator (see Grievous Angel), earlier she was “Maybelle on the radio,” where Maybelle, of course, is Maybelle Carter, matriarch of the Carter Family. Juliet and Romeo I hope I don’t have to explain (though one wonders if the tragic aspects of that liaison are considered—elsewhere on the album is a very haunting song called “Tragedy”), and the border into Mexico should speak for itself—seeming to indicate that this “boy” knows about running and also that he knows which way she’ll be running. When Texas just ain’t south enough no more, there’s just one place you can go.

It’s a great kiss-off song, y’know, that kind of song, as Dylan said about his own “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright,” you can sing to yourself sometimes to make yourself feel better: “There's nothing left for me 'round here / Looks like it's time to disappear.” Boy, do I know that feeling! But if it is really a shame and a sin, and maybe almost a tragedy, well, then, the myth is going to stick around.

“Just ask that boy from Tupelo.”

No fooling.

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