My Baby Needs A Shepherd: Red Dirt Girl Turns 20

Emmylou Harris dug deep and struck Grammy gold with her country-folk classic

Emmylou Harris Y2K (Art: Ron Hart)

By the time Emmylou Harris released her exceptional album Red Dirt Girl on September 12, 2000, she had succeeded not only in establishing herself as a forthright solo singer, but also a consistent contributor to the efforts of any number of other artists as well.

However with Red Dirt Girl, she managed to expand her artistic achievement even further with a concept album that found all but a single song at least partially the result of her own pen. It was a decided change of tack for her, considering that in the past only two of her albums, her 1969 solo debut Gliding Bird and her 1985 landmark The Ballad of Sally Rose were Harris’ only prior efforts to boast that rich reserve of self-penned material.

Indeed, Red Dirt Girl had much in common with its predecessor The Ballad of Sally Rose in that both albums seemed somewhat biographical in both the perspective and point of view. With contributions from producer and bassist Malcolm Burns, rising wunderkind Ethan Johns, longtime collaborator, confidant and guitarist Buddy Miller and multi-instrumentalist Darryl Johnson, the musical imprint was, by turns, atmospheric, intriguing and wholly emphatic, similar in style to the densely textured Wrecking Ball, released five years before. An all-star array of backing vocalists — among them, Bruce Springsteen and Patti Scialfa on the teeming song “Tragedy,” Patty Griffin on the steady and assured “My Baby Needs a Shepherd,” and Dave Matthews on the richly reflective “My Antonia”  — provide the arrangements with additional emphasis. The result were realized with reviews that were, for themes part, equally enthusiastic, with few exceptions. In addition, it would subsequently climb to number three on the Billboard Country Album charts and reap a Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album a year later.  Nevertheless, its lingering legacy may be best affirmed by the fact that Red Dirt Girl would eventually be inscribed in the book 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die, a not insignificant honor in itself. 

Emmylou Harris Red Dirt Girl, Nonesuch 2000

Harris’ personal connection to the material is reflected in the fact that one of its key songs, the somber yet stoic cowrite with Guy Clark “Bang the Drum Slowly,” honored her late father. Her  emotional investment is further found in any number of its other offerings as well, from the decidedly determined opening track “The Pearl” and the richly evocative “Michelangelo,” to the seductive strains and understated urgency of “I Don’t Want To Talk About It Now,” the deeply affecting title track and the shimmering yet radiant “Hour of Gold.”

Indeed, it’s that commitment to cause that finds Red Dirt Girl so moving and memorable. It is, even now, 20 years on, an exceptionally evocative album, and one on which she could entirely rest her reputation. 

 

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Lee Zimmerman

Lee Zimmerman is a writer and columnist based in beautiful Maryville Tennessee. Over the past 20 years, his work has appeared in dozens of leading music publications. He is also the author of Americana Music: Voice, Visionaries, and Pioneers of an Honest Sound, which will be published by Texas A&M University Press early next year.

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