Emmylou Harris, ‘Quarter Moon in a Ten Cent Town’ (03/09/78)

The late Junior Parker once recorded a tune called “Sometime Tomorrow My Broken Heart Will Die”; the most Emmylou Harris can tell us is that sometime tomorrow her broken heart will sigh. The great blues and country singers communicate absolute sincerity, but all that Harris, an ex-folkie who some years ago found herself in Dolly Parton, communicates absolutely is her wish to sound sincere. Her music is all intention, all emulation; there’s no originality, no verve, no fooling around, no grace. She sings as if she’s afraid to chase the emotion behind a line or a note—something Jackson Browne has finally come to do—because her whole approach is based on a mastery of clichés. If she were to go after anything more elusive, she might miss the cliché, and then the foundations of her music would collapse beneath her, and there would be nothing left.

Quarter Moon in a Ten Cent Town follows Harris’s most successful LP, Luxury Liner—the country charts ate it up, which speaks not well for Harris but ill for the charts—and it’s the safest, most bland offering imaginable: a make-out album for the sensitive. Harris is singing so carefully here there’s not a chance she’ll take over a song (all ten are by other writers) and make it her own. The music might be reassuring—that’s why you could make out to it—but only because you’ve heard it a hundred times before. “My Songbird,” Jesse Winchester’s corniest song, was cut and dried before it was written; U. Utah Phillips’ “Green Rolling Hills” is adamant in its determination to keep novel ideas out of its lyrics; Delbert McClinton’s “Two More Bottles of Wine” is pure country ready-made. They’re the sort of songs real singers—black, white, country or soul—take as a challenge, daring the banality of the material to snuff out the force of their personalities; as a singer, Harris has no personality, so she just walks through her numbers by rote. The only signs of life on Quarter Moon come between the lines: with Emory Gordy’s bass on “I Ain’t Living Long like This” (he’s spooky, and, for a moment, we’re in the territory J. J. Cale mapped out on “Going Down” and “Travelin’ Light”) and with Garth Hudson’s accordion and Rick Danko’s fiddle on “Leaving Louisiana in the Broad Daylight.” Otherwise, the music is merely well-made and well-paid: clean and perfunctory.

Harris has it all down: there isn’t a crack in the country voice, a choke in the throat, a flirt or a twang that she hasn’t learned by heart. She simply can’t bring any heart to what she’s learned, and she’s become to country what John Hammond Jr. was to blues: a surrogate for people who don’t really like the stuff—or for people who think they like it, but can’t relate to the crudity and the sometimes scary depths of the people who make the real stuff. This means that while Harris clearly loves the music she sings at, she’s not an imitator; she’s an obstacle.


Rolling Stone, March 9, 1978


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One thought on “Emmylou Harris, ‘Quarter Moon in a Ten Cent Town’ (03/09/78)

  1. John Hammond Jr: What about the people who moved from John Hammond Jr. to Muddy Waters,Son House ,Howlin’Wolf & Robert Johnson ?Martin Williams is very good on popularizers.
    John Hammond has probably turned more people on to Blues
    than G.M has turned people onto Punk-and I have no doubt as to which is the more worthy cause.I don’t know about the politics of country music fans ,but if Emmy Lou is equivalent to John Hammond Jr., then more power & I suspect that over the years,like John Hammond Jr.,she has kept getting better at her craft.

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