It’s taken me more than a decade to resume my exploration of Emmylou Harris’ earliest work, and I wanted to blame Elite Hotel, her second album, from scaring me off. In reality, the fault lies with Pieces of the Sky.
Harris’ stunning debut threaded together songs from diverse eras and genres with a seamless performance that still sounds rich many decades later. It left such an impression, Elite Hotel, which I also bought at the same time, didn’t have much of a chance.
Nor did any of her other early albums.
Thanks to the convenience of online stream (RIP Lala), I got around to listening to Luxury Liner, Harris’ third album. Why did I wait so long?
Luxury Liner follows the same template established by Pieces of the Sky and followed by many other albums — get awesome players to perform excellent songs. This era was the time of the Hot Band, Harris’ stable of backing musicians that became a finishing school for new talent. Rodney Crowell and Ricky Skaggs are alumni.
The band lives up to its name on Chuck Berry’s "(You Can Never Tell) C’est la Vie", and they open the album with a burning performance of the title track.
Harris calls herself a "finder of songs", and her ear is golden on Luxury Liner. A tearjerker such as the Louvin Brothers’ "When I Stop Dreaming" doesn’t sound out of place on the same album as Gram Parsons’ "She". Harris and Nicolette Larson make a beautiful duet on "Hello Stranger", while "Tulsa Queen" concludes the album with sweet harmonies and a rich arrangement.
In other words, your typical excellent Emmylou Harris album. Change the album and song titles in this entry, and you pretty much have reviews for Bluebird, Trio with Linda Ronstadt and Dolly Parton, All I Intended to Be and, perhaps, Quarter Moon in a Ten Cent Town.
(I was also listening to Quarter Moon at the same time as Luxury Liner, and to my ears, it was Pieces of the Sky vs. Elite Hotel all over again.)
A 2004 reissue of the album tacks on a pair of bonus tracks, "Me and Willie" and "Night Flyer". They feel like flotsam and jetsam compared to the tight program of the album proper, and "Pancho & Lefty" is much more evocative than "Me and Willie".
As much as I love Pieces of the Sky, Luxury Liner excels enough to chip away at that devotion. And it certainly makes me more open to listen to the rest of Harris’ early work, Elite Hotel included.