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I think I'm over being a rock star. -- Bono, 2005

U2 Connections

Emmylou Harris

by Angela Pancella

Emmylou Harris

Talking about U2 generally means talking about Bono, Edge, Adam and Larry. Start talking about U2's sound, though, and by rights you extend the circle to their producers over the years -- Steve Lillywhite, Howie B, and most prominently Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois. Many of the recordings Lanois has done for other artists, and his own performances, conjure that mysterious "U2 sound" -- not least because members of U2 are frequent guest stars on these albums.

Back in 1996, I took my first extended trip away from home to work as a nanny for an American couple with a small child. They worked in opera, so we spent three weeks in Milan and two months in England, a little south of London. I had never before been more than a couple of weeks away from my family, and had certainly never gone as far as Europe. I took with me only the barest minimum, music-wise; a Nylons CD, a couple of R.E.M. tapes, one or two U2 boots.

My charge's father, a tenor named Paul, was an unexpected font of pop music information. He had a small traveling pack of CDs -- Richard Thompson's You? Me? Us?, the Linda Thompson anthology Dreams Fly Away, the Stones' Exile on Main St., Bob Dylan's World Gone Wrong and Good As I Been To You. This was my first exposure to all of these CDs. They obviously made an impression on me -- I now own most of the songs I heard first on the tiny Discman that sat in that apartment in Milan, that house in East Sussex. 

One day in Milan Paul put in a CD of a female singer. I had a vague sense I'd heard some of the songs before; likely on the St. Louis community radio station where I now work, KDHX. But there was something else familiar about it too. 

"What is this?" I asked. 

"Emmylou Harris, a CD called Wrecking Ball," Paul said. 

I didn't want to say it, in case by opening my mouth I'd reveal just how ignorant I was about music, but I thought I could guess who produced it. Daniel Lanois. And I was right. The swirling, otherworldly guitar as an auxiliary voice, proudly inhuman but mystical too -- the guitar gave it away. 

If you don't yet own Emmylou Harris' Wrecking Ball, get it. It will not disappoint. And the U2 connections are myriad. For one thing, it bleeds Lanois. He plays on every track (electric guitar, mandolin, bass, acoustic guitar, dulcimer, even percussion), sings on a few, and wrote a couple more. (If you like Edge's guitar playing, odds are really quite good that you'll like Daniel Lanois'.) Our own Larry Mullen, Jr. is the main percussionist here, and his drum tech Sam O'Sullivan makes a guest appearance too. Brian Blade makes an appearance on drums; he's the drummer for the Million Dollar Hotel Band. So basically this has the sound of a U2 disc with a female lead singer. (I've heard it called the true "Joshua Tree Part II," but it's got a little too much Achtung Baby noise on it to really be that. Darned close, though.) The choice of songs reinforces this -- the songs with lyrics like 

Oh, streets are cracked
And there's glass everywhere
And a baby stares out
With motherless eyes...
Oh, where will I be when that trumpet sounds?

The lyrics combined with the instrumentation give the album a feel of a post-apocalyptic revival meeting, the sort of work U2 would do if they were a gospel band, instead of just frequently masquerading as one. Perhaps not coincidentally, the track containing these words, "Where Will I Be," was written by Lanois, the man responsible for coaxing the band in a gospel direction on "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For."

Strangely enough, Emmylou Harris has never worked with all of U2. Despite recording many cover songs, she has never covered U2. Their tastes intersect, though -- she, like Bono, has recorded a Leonard Cohen song (he covered "Hallelujah," she sang a version of "Ballad of the Absent Mare" retitled "Ballad of a Runaway Horse"). Both sang at the recently televised Johnny Cash tribute -- U2 performed "Don't Take Your Guns to Town," Emmylou sang "Long Black Veil" with Dave Matthews. In fact that may be the closest point at which the two artists intersect, besides their Daniel Lanois connection. Recently the Chieftains revealed their recording of "Long Black Veil" with Mick Jagger was meant to contain harmony vocals from Bono, but when they discovered the harmony didn't work they abandoned the idea.

There's yet another U2/Emmylou Harris connection that is worth mentioning. Her early duet partner was Gram Parsons, considered a founder, if not the founder, of country rock. He died in 1973, two months shy of his 27th birthday in, well, you know where: Joshua Tree, California.