In the early days of her career, Emmylou Harris was one of country music’s true trailblazers, blasting out of the legend of Gram Parsons in 1973 to play country with a rock & roll heart. By the Hot Country ’90s, though, she couldn’t get on the radio, usually the first sign of a fatal downturn. Many performers with longevity on their minds would cater to the radio gods, but on Cowgirl’s Prayer (Asylum), Harris’ 22nd album, she takes the opposite tack. She has simply recorded the best music she could find — commercialism be damned. The result is her finest album in years.
Besides writing two songs, her best in a decade, Harris has culled the catalogs of such cerebral writers as Lucinda Williams, Leonard Cohen, Jesse Winchester, Tony Arata, and David Olney to find songs that push the envelope of contemporary country music. Olney’s ”Jerusalem Tomorrow,” for example, a risky, spoken-word piece, tells the story of Jesus of Nazareth from the point of view of a pre-biblical flim-flam man who ends up a disciple. Most of these songs, especially Harris’ own poetic ”Prayer in Open D” and ”The Light” (cowritten with Kieran Kane), have an overtly spiritual nature, as the singer reflects on a life filled with damage, regret, and remorse. These are songs about coming clean, about being real, not only with loved ones, but with oneself. In today’s country music, with its emphasis on conscience-free fun, that’s trailblazing of a higher order. A+