I saw a snippet in the news yesterday about it being the 45th anniversary of Gram Parsons’ death at the Joshua Tree (yes, the one U2 wrote about…).
Whenever I hear Gram Parsons name mentioned I always think of First Aid Kit’s delightful song “Emmylou”.
The record was released back in 2012, but I only came across it by chance a couple of years ago — one of those wonderful discoveries I’ve got to thank the “if you liked that, you’ll like this too” feature on YouTube for. Since then “Emmylou”, and indeed First Aid Kit, have been great favourites of mine.
First Aid Kit are two sisters from Sweden who write beautiful songs and sing them like angels.
There are very few places in the world outside the southern part of the United States where country music is the most popular musical genre, and I think I’m on pretty safe ground suggesting that Sweden probably isn’t one of them.
But when the world is at its best, it puts delightful coincidences in your way. Perhaps you meet the love of your life, just by chance. Perhaps you see a film that captivates you. Perhaps, in a suburb of Stockholm, two teenage sisters discover country music…
That’s what happened to Klara and Johanna Soderberg in the mid-2000s, setting them on a path that led to writing “Emmylou”.
Once the spark was lit, they explored country music voraciously.
There’s no mention of this in research I did into the band, but I suspect Klara and Johanna they were interested in the stories that went with country music as much as the music itself.
In “Emmylou” First Aid Kit reference probably two of the greatest love stories…and indeed creative partnerships…in country music.
Firstly, the relationship between Johnny Cash and June Carter. They were infatuated with one another, and stayed together for 35 years until June passed away. Johnny went just four months later. To him, there didn’t seem to be anything else worth hanging around for.
Theirs was a rocky road in all sorts of ways, but June Carter’s love for Johnny Cash was unwavering, even in the face of the biggest challenges. I’ve always admired her courage and fortitude.
The other reference in “Emmylou” is to the equally pivotal partnership between Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris.
Their relationship was professional rather than personal. But although their love for one another was of the unrequited kind, there was no less love between Emmylou Harris and Gram Parsons than there was between Johnny Cash and June Carter.
Gram Parsons was a huge star, having been in the Byrds and The Flying Burrito Brothers. He was one of the driving forces behind the development of the then-new country rock style. One day he saw an unknown folk singer called Emmylou Harris in a backstreet bar and was captivated by her performance.
He asked her to go on the road with his band. Emmylou Harris also sung harmonies on Gram Parsons’ two solo albums. Together they reinvented country music.
But all too quickly Gram Parsons was gone. A couple of years after that late-night meeting in a backstreet bar, Gram Parsons died alone in the desert, supposedly from an overdose.
Emmylou Harris has denied any physical relationship between them but has said “A couple of weeks before [his death] I finally accepted the fact that I was in love with him…I didn’t want to say it to him over the phone. I wanted to say it to him in person. But I never got the chance.”
Emmylou Harris and Gram Parsons had the greatest love affair that never was. There aren’t many things in the world sadder than that…
The sadness of losing Gram Parsons spurred Emmylou Harris into making some of the most critically-acclaimed music by any living female singer. It didn’t compensate for her loss but, in a roundabout way, it helped keep Gram Parsons’ memory alive.
Although those two immense love stories had happened thousands of miles away and decades beforehand…one day in the early 2000s two Swedish teenagers stumbled across the significance of the relationships between this little group of musical legends, and the love that inspired them.
You don’t need to be a girl in your early teens to be captivated by stories like this. Truly great stories are timeless, and signpost us all along the path of life, if we are fortunate enough to hear them.
Eventually, after years of writing songs and developing their craft, Klara and Johanna Soderberg wrote “Emmylou” as their tribute to the great love stories which had inspired their own interest in music.
Bearing in mind that Klara and Johanna are not writing in their first language, they have some lovely turns of phrase…
Now so much I know that things don’t just grow
If you don’t bless them with your patience
And I’ve been there before, I’ve held up the door
For every stranger with a promise
I love that line about holding the door for every stranger with a promise…that’s just beautiful.
If the angels are smiling on you, after a few experiences of strangers with promises they don’t deliver on, you might be fortunate enough to meet someone who you know is the one for you…the only one…for as long as you both walk the surface of the earth.
That’s a special moment…
I’ll be your Emmylou and I’ll be your June
If you’ll be my Gram and my Johnny too
No I’m not asking much of you
Just sing, little darling, sing with me
The words on a page don’t do justice to the phenomenal delivery of the Soderberg sisters. The quality of their harmonies can only come from a very special place…and it’s a place we go to willingly, carried there by their story of two of the greatest musical love affairs of all time.
Even if you’re not steeped in the musical history referenced in “Emmylou”, the chorus will blow you away. You don’t come across a song as beautiful and touching as this very often.
And I’m not the only one to think that…in the video below First Aid Kit perform their song live in front of Emmylou Harris herself at a Swedish music awards ceremony. You’ll see it moves her to tears.
There’s a video with studio quality audio here…https://youtu.be/PC57z-oDPLs . This is packed full of Joshua Tree and Gram Parsons imagery — the video director had clearly done their homework…
That version of “Emmylou” is beautiful, but there’s something in the human quality of the live performance in front of Emmylou Harris herself that makes the live version extra-special.
You might need a tissue handy for this one…it moved me greatly just watching the video. Emmylou Harris held herself together much better than I would have done in the same circumstances. (She’s the elegant, sliver haired lady with glasses the camera comes back to from time to time.)
So, here’s one of the most beautiful songs you’ll have heard in a long time, with some of the most delightful harmonies ever to make their way onto a record… It’s First Aid Kit with “Emmylou”…
The video is below or, if you prefer, you can enjoy the song on Spotify here… https://open.spotify.com/track/4r9MqJ7MG26TFyxqr7PK01
PS — just before we get to the video, if you enjoyed this article, please give it a “clap”…or even more than one if you’re feeling kind. You can also follow me on Medium (here) or Twitter (here) to get new articles as soon as they’re published.