Following the drug-related death of her musical mentor Gram Parsons in 1973, Emmylou Harris recorded her major-label debut LP Pieces of the Sky. Released in February 1975, the album strongly reflected Parsons’ influence, blending traditional country, rock and pop tunes from Rodney Crowell, the Louvin Brothers, Merle Haggard, the Beatles, Shel Silverstein and more, backed by the first-rate musicians who would comprise Harris’s Hot Band: James Burton on guitar, Glen D. Hardin on piano, Emory Gordy Jr. on bass, Hank DeVito on steel guitar and John Ware on drums. The set also included Harris’s tribute to Parsons, “Boulder to Birmingham,” later covered by Dolly Parton.
Pieces of the Sky was a Top Ten country album and she took the Louvins’ “If I Could Only Win Your Love,” with harmonies from Herb Pedersen, into the Top Five. But, in addition to the success of that LP, Harris would release a Christmas single, “Light of the Stable,” with Linda Ronstadt, Parton and Neil Young on harmony, and another full album, Elite Hotel, which hit stores just before the end of the year.
Elite Hotel continued the eclecticism established by the previous LP, opening just as that album had with a Rodney Crowell tune, “Amarillo,” penned with Harris. Also backed by the Hot Band, Elite Hotel was a musical tour-de-force containing three Gram Parsons tunes (“Ooh Las Vegas,” “Sin City” and Wheels”), along with Crowell’s “Till I Gain Control Again,” the Beatles’ “Here, There and Everywhere,” and the classic country of “Jambalaya” “Sweet Dreams” and “Together Again.” The latter two tunes would become Harris’s first two Number One country hits and the LP would also reach the top spot. Thirty-eight years ago today, on July 27th, 1978, nearly three years after its release, Elite Hotel was certified gold by the RIAA, having sold over 500,000 copies. Her record sales eventually helped recoup the astronomical cost of touring with such in-demand players, an investment, Harris would later say, that certainly paid off well.
Harris’s Hot Band was such a significant part of her sound and her success that she once took out a trade ad noting that an Esquire feature on the “Heavy 100 of Country Music” had completely neglected mentioning them. But one need only look at the names of musicians who replaced others in the group as they departed to understand their importance. For instance, Albert Lee took over (on tour) for Burton, Ricky Skaggs replaced Crowell and future MCA label head and producer Tony Brown replaced Hardin on keyboards. Gordy would also go on to become a superstar producer as well as the husband of singer Patty Loveless.
In the above clip from 1976, Emmylou and the Hot Band are guests on the BBC’s long-running music series Old Grey Whistle Test, presented by Whispering Bob Harris, who remains one of the U.K.’s most passionate supporters of country music. Strumming her usual Gibson and sporting a pin with the show’s iconic logo on it, Harris’s delicate yet piercing vocal on Buck Owens’ “Together Again” is backed by harmony from Crowell, with DeVito’s weeping steel yet another of the many facets of a sterling performance.
“It’s like walking that tightrope between the real maudlin and banal and the real honest and truthful,” Harris said of country music’s lyrics in a 1978 interview with Rolling Stone. “An example: ‘Together Again’ obviously is a happy song because it says, ‘We’re together again.’ But it intimates so much heartbreak. Let’s say a situation like my mother and father went through when my father was a prisoner of war for sixteen months [in the Korean War]. For most of that time my mother didn’t know whether he was dead or alive. It’s the kind of song that says nothing else matters, we’re together again. That really means something. And then you have what I really love about country music — the harmonies and phrasing. There’s a certain stateliness and gracefulness to it.”
Harris would revisit the song more or less with a 1979 duet she recorded with Owens (which he also co-wrote) called “Play Together Again Again.” It reached Number Eleven on the singles chart.