The haunting beauty of great Americana music

John J. Thompson

Three icons of Americana music have released new projects this year. Fans of soulful, truthful music made by real human hands owe it to themselves to check out all three.

Emmylou Harris /"Hard Bargain"

Emmylou Harris has been crafting some of the most beautiful American music since her debut in the early 1970s alongside the legendary Gram Parsons. Now, 40-some years into her incredible career, Harris releases what is likely her strongest project since 1995’s epic "Wrecking Ball." Though all of her projects have had their moments, "Hard Bargain" establishes the perfect balance between the artist’s uniquely ambient voice and songs with enough structure and momentum to propel it.

"Hard Bargain" is full of personal stories and sentiments. From untimely death to the ongoing struggles of life, this disc serves as a sort of soundtrack for all of us. Harris has never been afraid to dive right into the darkest of places - murder, infidelity, depression, addiction, hopelessness - but she always brings her uniquely flickering light to those places. Though never religious in its delivery, the gospel of grace is ever-present in her lyrics and somehow even in the sound of her voice.

Robbie Robertson / "How to Become Clairvoyant"

Few artists own the resume of Robbie Robertson. Despite a slew of sporadically released but mostly acclaimed solo albums, the first thing mentioned about this veteran guitarist, songwriter and vocalist is that he was a key member of The Band. In that capacity he backed up none other than Bob Dylan for many years.

After a 10-year break Robertson launched his start-and-stop solo career in the late '80s. His records ranged from blues-soaked rock to experimental electronic. His latest, "How to Become Clairvoyant," returns to the swampy, bayou and gospel-soaked sound the man is known for. His well-aged voice is accompanied by a legendary bench that includes Robert Randolph, Eric Clapton, Steve Winwood and, yes, Trent Reznor. The result is a gurgling, soulful bag full of spiritual gems.

Robertson completely owns the persona of the world-weary seer who dispenses hard-won wisdom in the form of folk tales about voodoo, ghosts and the gospel. To Robbie all things are spiritual, and he’s probably right about that. His penchant for regularly placing Christian imagery alongside Native-American mythology and New Orleans magic will confuse and frustrate purists of any of those positions. The album’s particularly, um, Robertsonesque title track obliquely explores the universally human desire to know the unknowable future. While some of the spirit-speak comes off as window-dressing on a creepy old house, the guts of the thing are all soul. Few artists can capture a longing for personal peace, inter-personal connection and cosmic significance like Robertson.

Buddy Miller (and Friends) / "Majestic Silver Strings"

Buddy Miller certainly needs no help when it comes to guitar playing. In his hands, and through his strings, the power of blues, rock and roll, country and jazz are forged into something timeless. Then there’s the bold twang of his howl-at-the-moon voice. That he would deign to enlist the vocal or instrumental help of anyone for his latest project is a sign of his other super power: humility.

This king of Americana gathered an eclectic ensemble of vocalists and guitarists to craft "Majestic Silver Strings." The axes he assembles - Marc Ribot, Greg Leisz and Bill Frisell - are all royalty in the Americana world. The four gather under the name Majestic Silver Strings and conduct a veritable clinic on Americana guitar. Meanwhile, vocalists Lee Ann Womack, Patty Griffin, Shawn Colvin, Ann McCrary, Emmylou Harris, Chocolate Genius and Miller’s wife Julie are also all along for the ride.

The result is a vibey collection of amazing sounds. They never quite pop the way Miller’s previous solo work does, but as a concept piece "Majestic Silver Strings" wins. It is layered, creepy, spiritual and sad. The closing track, a starkly understated gospel tune called “God’s Wing’ed Horse,” provides the perfect patch of misty forest grass for this set of songs to land on. Sung by Buddy and Julie, the song lays out their well-worn faith in no uncertain terms and leaves the listener eager for whatever musical offering the Millers have on tap next.

“JJT” has been chasing the thread dangling between eternal truths and temporal creative experiences for nearly three decades. He is a writer, a businessman, a father, an artist and a seeker. Read more about him at

Topics: Music, Culture At Large, Arts & Leisure