The Meaning Behind “Boulder to Birmingham” by Emmylou Harris and the Gone-Too-Soon Legend Who Inspired It

Emmylou Harris has forged an amazing career as a prime interpreter of the material of other songwriters. She has also proven herself as a stellar songwriter in her own right. For example, any songwriter would take pride in “Boulder to Birmingham,” a song she co-wrote and performed back in 1975 that’s become an alt-country standard.

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What is the meaning behind “Boulder to Birmingham?” What gone-too-soon legend inspired Harris to create the track? And what iconic ’70s songs also came from her co-writer on the track? It all goes back to the Grievous Angel himself.

Going Back to Gram

While it’s impossible to pinpoint the single artist most responsible for the genre known as alt-country, Gram Parsons made as good a case as any in his brief life. He pushed The Byrds in a rootsy direction, joined a bunch of other key genre figures in The Flying Burrito Brothers, and influenced the country songs The Rolling Stones tried on for size in the early ’70s. Then there were his two solo albums, GP and Grievous Angel, unsuccessful in their time but massively influential since Parsons’ death at age 26 in 1973.

On those two solo albums, Parsons received a major boost from the harmonies of Emmylou Harris. Harris had started as a folk singer and had one unsuccessful album of her own under her belt when she started singing with Parsons. Her impact on those records can’t be denied. But when Parsons died, she felt at a loss at how to proceed.

She knew one thing, however: That she would stay in the country-rock path forged by her fallen friend. She secured a new record deal and recorded Pieces of the Sky in 1975, an album which spawned a Top 5 country hit in “If I Could Only Win Your Love.” She tackled material ranging from Merle Haggard to The Beatles on the record. “Boulder to Birmingham,” Harris’ one songwriting credit on the album, addressed her grief over Parsons’ death.

In a 2018 interview with The Guardian, Harris expressed how the track not only helped her as a therapeutic exercise, but also others who listened to it. “That song was very important,” she said. “Words can be so powerful to help you express something you otherwise can’t. And everyone has experienced loss, so even though the song is deeply personal, I can understand how people can relate to it, having lost someone who is very close to them.”

To help her get it right, Harris enlisted Bill Danoff as co-writer. Danoff made quite an impact with some other songs on his ’70s CV. In 1971, he co-wrote “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” the massive hit by John Denver. And a year after helping Harris, he was on top of the pop charts himself with his new band The Starland Vocal Band and their ode to daytime whoopee, “Afternoon Delight.”

What is the Meaning of “Boulder to Birmingham?”

“Boulder to Birmingham” speaks eloquently and touchingly about Harris’ attempts to make sense of the world without Parsons in it. She explains that former joys of life, like love songs, no longer make much sense to her. Instead, she tries to escape the pain on an airplane, with nothing any longer to keep her tethered: And I know there’s life below me / But all that it can show me is the prairie and the sky.

Harris compares his current emotional state to a natural disaster: The last time I felt like this / I was in the wilderness and the canyon was on fire. In the last verse, she gently chides her friend for leaving her high and dry. She also indulges in magical thinking, imagining the highway is an ocean coming down to wash me clean.

The chorus sums up all that she would do to bring Parsons somehow back into her life, if only for a glimpse of his face: I would rock my soul in the bosom of Abraham / I would hold my life in his saving grace / I would walk all the way from Boulder to Birmingham. Emmylou Harris was in the midst of solidifying her status as a country music superstar when she wrote and sang those words. How moving that she chose that moment to look back on what her old friend meant to her.

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Photo by Jared Siskin/Getty Images for Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum

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