My record collection used to be much larger. In addition to the albums I was picking up on my own, I used to also haul around every single record that either of my parents had ever bought, too. While Rachelle and I haven’t exactly sat still in the three-plus years that we’ve been married (our current address is the sixth we’ve had together), I used to move around even more frequently, and at some point decided that it was time to pare down the immense stack of mid-seventies country and singer-songwriters I was ferrying from place to place. So I culled what I wanted from the major collection and tossed the rest in a closet at my mom’s, where they sit to this day alongside t-shirts I used wear in high school and the remainders of what was once a pretty prolific baseball-card collection.
Apparently, while claiming my Beatles records, I inadvertently grabbed this self-titled release by Delia Bell, and have been carrying it around with me for years without ever having listened to it. Until two hours ago, all I know about Delia Bell was her name, and that her album’s space on my shelf was the result of inattentive picking; having glanced at the back cover, where “PRODUCED AND ARRANGED BY EMMYLOU HARRIS” is stamped along the bottom, I now know how it ended up in the major collection. My dad, as we’ll see when we arrive at the Hs, knows no bounds when it comes to his love for Emmylou. Delia Bell, it turns out, is Emmylou’s favorite female singer, which means that with Delia Bell, she beat Rick Rubin at his own game by ten years, and Jack White by twenty. I’m tempted to say that Emmylou failed where those two succeeded, given the ways that Johnny Cash and Loretta Lynn’s profiles were raised by working with the younger producers. Delia Bell remains obscure; Delia Bell hasn’t even been reviewed by the venerable AllMusic. But Rubin and White were working with former superstars who had become artistically and commercially stalled, musicians whose respective influence changed the trajectory of country music over and again. Delia Bell, meanwhile, was and remains an obscurity, unfair though that may be, and the release of this Harris-produced album was the peak of her popularity.
Like Rubin, Harris keeps it simple. The band she assembled–which includes none other than Chet Atkins on lead guitar–play their hearts out, barreling through these numbers like they’re playing to the back of a crowded honky tonk. Opener “Coyote Blues” reels off fiddle lines and high and lonesome melody over an upbeat shuffle, while Bell yearns for her Montana home. The production is clean, free of the era’s reverb, and sounds like it could have been laid down at any point in the preceding fifty years. Bell’s bluegrass bonafides serve her well here, as they do in “Back Street Affair” and “I Forgot More (Than You’ll Ever Know About Him),” both down-tempo numbers that keep her voice within its range. On side two, she and John Anderson (of “I’m Just a Lump of Coal (But I’ll Be a Diamond Some Day)” fame) keen and pine their way through George Jones’ suitably twisting melody. Anderson is a dead ringer for Jones, and between his voice and the way the opening fiddles herald his arrival like that of some Appalachian king, I didn’t think twice before jotting down “Jones pushes her to get those big open notes.” I think I gasped audibly when I checked the credits.
But there are times when Harris’ sparse production fails Bell. “Weary Heart,” which opens side two, is the album’s only flat-out bluegrass number. If YouTube videos are to be believed, Bell was a phenomenal bluegrass singer as recently as 2000, but here her voice is placed high in the mix, as if she’s standing right in front of the speakers. That isolation exposes the weaknesses in her voice, a kind of artistic uncertainty that might not have been able to rise above the fray of the backing band. Elsewhere, on the Loretta Lynn clone “Don’t Cheat in Our Hometown,” Bell sounds unconvinced of her husband’s philandering ways. “How can I stand up to my friends and look them in the eye?” she sings, but it sounds more like a recital. Harris doesn’t do her any favors by acting as backing vocalist here; despite the charm Bell shows elsewhere, it’s hard not to hear Harris’ vocal superiority.
Still, I was pleasantly surprised by Delia Bell. Every time I pictured the cover in my mind, I saw an elderly lady dressed in country finery, one of those big-shouldered Loretta dresses, and I was certain that her album would be overrun with countrypolitan strings and overwrought emotion. But that’s not even what Bell’s wearing. She’s got on a heavy coat with a Native American pattern, and on the back cover she sports a fringed white-leather jacket she might have borrowed from Emmylou. It’s got its missteps, sure, but Delia Bell feels genuine and free of pretension. I was prepared to write some kind of takedown, or at least to flirt with the idea in my mind before offering up some kind of soft apologetic for elderly musicians with bad taste. But Emmylou doesn’t patronize Bell by surrounding her with lush instrumentals; she lets her do what she does best. And what she does best, she does quite well.