The Ballad of Sally Rose (Expanded Edition)
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars
The tendency of musicians to reflect on previous artistic hits (or misses) as they age is a natural response to the sense that there is less time ahead of them than behind. Perhaps a similar sense of mortality that has spurred Neil Young to catalog his life on an exhaustively researched website has caught up with Emmylou Harris. It would explain why we get an expanded reissue of The Ballad of Sally Rose, one of her least commercially popular efforts, now 33 years old and ripe for rediscovery.
Harris’ 1985 song cycle, partially inspired by Bruce Springsteen’s reflective Nebraska, was the first album where she wrote or co-composed every tune, most in conjunction with boyfriend and soon-to-be husband singer/songwriter/producer Paul Kennerley. Perhaps not surprisingly, Kennerley helmed his own song cycle, The Legend of Jessie James, back in 1980 that featured Harris (as James’ wife) and other high profile country musicians. Sally Rose was already an alias Harris used but you don’t need to know that to realize the story is a thinly veiled, semi-autobiographical telling of her own short lived but highly influential relationship with Gram Parsons. Some of the specifics are changed — “Sally was born in the Black Hills of Dakota” goes the lyric to the title cut, and Harris was not — but there are enough other references to cement the personal connection. She bares her soul in an album’s worth of originals that both tell the story (like in the J.J. Cale lope of “Rhythm Guitar”) and let the listener fill in the blanks, as on the glistening, string-enhanced ballad “Diamond in My Crown,” where she sings “I shall not disavow/ all these ties that bind me now.”
The ballad-heavy set clocks in at just over 35 minutes yet is never rushed in telling its not-so-fictional tale of Rose, a fledgling singer taken under an unnamed high profile act’s wing who becomes a star herself after his highway related death (“Bad News”). In the story she ends up buying a radio station (“K-S-O-S”) though, something Harris never did. The project was clearly a labor of love for Emmylou who invited friends Linda Ronstadt, Dolly Parton and Vince Gill along with her Hot Band members Hank DeVito and Albert Lee to assist. None of this has aged a day and tracks like “Sweetheart of the Rodeo” and the gorgeous gospel-infused “Sweet Chariot” remain as pertinent and touching as when they were written.
Even though … Sally Rose was an artistic success and nominated for a Grammy, it was a commercial disappointment, despite, or more likely because of, it’s unusually personal approach. It also didn’t spawn any hit singles. Rhino and Harris reassess this somewhat forgotten gem by remastering the original album and adding a second disc of previously unreleased, (mostly) unplugged demos, all rawer than the polished recording and worth hearing.
The combination of both the original 13 songs and 10 demos still barely breaks an hour which makes expanding this to two short discs with a list price of almost $25 (a double vinyl edition is even higher) seem a bit mercenary. Still, the exquisite Ballad of Sally Rose deserves the deluxe treatment and if this reissue sparks a revitalized, belated respect for this oughta-be-classic, it has done its job.