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Flashback: Emmylou Harris Takes ‘Sally Rose’ to ‘Austin City Limits’

In this stunning performance from 1986, Harris plays two songs from the underrated concept LP, ‘The Ballad of Sally Rose’

As 1985 got underway for Emmylou Harris, she was closing out a turbulent year in which she separated from husband-producer Brian Ahern and made a permanent move from Los Angeles to Nashville. With dozens of her musical comrades already working and living in MusicCity, Harris undertook one of the most daring projects in her career, a semi-autobiographical concept album called The Ballad of Sally Rose.

While most of her previous LPs had contained Harris’s interpretations of other writers’ works, Sally Rose was co-written by Harris with English songwriter Paul Kennerley, a former ad man who would write her 1982 Top Five single, “Born to Run” and soon become her husband. The album’s storyline was loosely based on the singer’s brief musical partnership with Gram Parsons, whose 1973 death had inspired the song “Boulder to Birmingham,” one of the rare instances of a self-penned tune on Harris’s early Warner Bros. albums.

Dubbed a “country opera” by Harris, The Ballad of Sally Rose, which Kennerley produced, was not his first concept record. In 1978, Kennerley penned White Mansions, a tale of the American South during the Confederacy and featuring performances from Waylon Jennings, Jessi Colter and others. Two years later, Kennerley told The Legend of Jesse James, with an album featuring The Band’s Levon Helm in the title role and participation from Johnny Cash, Charlie Daniels, Rosanne Cash, Rodney Crowell, guitarist Albert Lee, and Harris. On the strength of the quality of those projects – their lack of commercial success notwithstanding – Kennerley relocated to Nashville in 1983, when work on Sally Rose began. He and Harris wed in 1985 and remained married until 1993.

The LP’s title character took her name from an alias Harris had adopted in South Dakota in 1978. “We had a couple of days off and we were in a bar one night and this person who had had a lot to drink thought he recognized me and wanted to engage in serious conversation,” Harris told the Washington Post in 1985. “Our manager, being very protective and diplomatic, said, ‘That isn’t Emmylou, actually. That’s Sally Rose. She sings with the band.'”

Featuring backing vocals by Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt, Gail Davies, and instrumental assistance from Vince Gill, Waylon Jennings and members of Harris’s Hot Band including Hank Devito, Barry Tashian, Emory Gordy Jr. and Albert Lee, The Ballad of Sally Rose was a sweet blend of acoustic folk-country, old-timey bluegrass and light rockers, a combination not far off from what Harris was, and would continue to be known for over the next several decades. While one track, “Woman Walk the Line,” would resurface on Highway 101’s 1987 debut LP (and also serve as the title of Holly Gleason’s extraordinary 2017 collection of essays on – and by – women in country music), The Ballad of Sally Rose was the first of Harris’s Warner Bros. LPs, save for a greatest-hits collection, that failed to generate at least one Top Ten hit at country radio. In spite of its commercial performance, today Sally Rose stands as one of Harris’s most daring and thoroughly engaging collections, a prime example of her gift for blending genres, propelled by a voice that’s powerful, heartbreaking and wholly unique.

Late in its 11th season on PBS, Austin City Limits presented one of the episodes in its continuing series titled “Songwriters Specials.” Seated “in the round” with Emmylou Harris were fellow writers Rosanne Cash, Gail Davies, Lacy J. Dalton and the team of Pam Rose and Mary Ann Kennedy. During the episode, Harris performed a medley of two songs from The Ballad of Sally Rose: “Diamond in My Crown” and “Sweetheart of the Rodeo,” with the chorus of the latter tune ringing with spectacular harmony from the other singers present while Harris’s light, weary rasp adds poignancy to the gospel-themed “Diamond in My Crown.”

An opportunity to reassess the brilliance of The Ballad of Sally Rose will present itself when Rhino Records issues a two-disc edition on June 1st, featuring a remastered version of the original album and a disc of previously unreleased demos for the 10 of the songs, with Harris accompanying herself on acoustic guitar. The Ballad of Sally Rose: Expanded Edition will be available on CD, as a two-record vinyl set and through digital outlets. Monday’s announcement of the expanded edition of the classic album was made to coincide with Harris’s 71st birthday on April 2nd. 

In This Article: Emmylou Harris

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