Emmylou Harris has been a grievous angel with Gram Parsons and part of an Angel Band with Vince Gill — and though one of those two projects might favor cosmic country over classic hymnals, she’s always had a way of connecting spiritually with or without the gospel. Which is why Harris was a natural fit (heavenly voice aside) to contribute to Mercyland: Hymns for the Rest of Us, Vol. II, a collection of songs curated and organized by Phil Madeira that celebrates the sort of secular faith that can only be born through music.
For her new original track, “Kyrie,” premiering exclusively on Rolling Stone Country, Harris took to the writing room with producer/musician/artist Madeira (whom she recruited for her 25th studio record, All I Intended to Be, in 2008, among other collaborations) and enlisted the vocal help of John Paul White, formerly of the Civil Wars. Both Harris and White (who “jumped at the chance to sing with Emmylou,” according to Madeira) lent songs to the original Mercyland, along with Matt Kearney, Shawn Mullins and Carolina Chocolate Drops. This year’s collection includes the Lone Bellow, the Wood Brothers and Angel Snow, among others.
“I’m happy that ‘Kyrie’ is part of the Mercyland compilation,” Harris tells Rolling Stone Country. “Songwriting is and always has been a mystery to me, but it helps to be in the room with a friend like Phil [Madeira], who birthed this one with me.”
The call of “Kyrie,” or “Kyrie Eleison,” is an ancient Christian prayer, referenced by everyone from Beethoven to Mr. Mister — and here it becomes an emotive, fiddle-laced tribute to the way every corner of humanity shares both struggle and salvation, regardless of to whom they pray. “The helpless and the holy, who do and don’t believe,” Harris sings, “bless us in thy mercy/for all will come to grieve.” White’s vocals provide a subtle echo on the chorus that is both jubilant and mournful — like the best hymns tend to be.
“I don’t know that the first Mercyland would have even happened without Emmylou’s involvement,” says Madeira. “When I started Volume II, she suggested we write together, which of course was an honor. She brought lovely verse ideas to the table, but a chorus eluded us until the words ‘Kyrie Eleison’ appeared. What better prayer can be prayed than to ask for mercy?”
Mercyland: Hymns for the Rest of Us, Vol. II is due January 15th via Mercyland Records.