Emmylou Harris' latest box set, Songbird, occupies a unique place among deluxe anthologies. I instead of being merely another greatest hits or an unreleased versions set, it's a collection of personally important musical moments. Songbird grants Ms. Harris a chance to be her own critic by showing her audience which performances and collaborations were the most important in her artistic development.
In every way Songbird qualifies as a deluxe set from its slip-cased cover with its delicate tipped-in photograph to the 200-page hard-covered book inside. My only criticism of the packaging is that it is difficult to get the CDs out of their cardboard slipcases. Once removed, the four CDs and one DVD deliver seventy-eight songs and ten music videos. The earliest song is a 1970 alternate version of "Clocks" from her first release Gliding Bird. The most recent tune comes from 2006, a duet with Mark Knopfler called "Love and Happiness" by Texas songwriter Kimmie Rhodes. In between these two you'll find songs from every period of Harris' storied career. Her collaborations with Gram Parsons, as well as her first great band, which featured James Burton's lead guitar and Rodney Crowell's rhythm guitar and harmony vocals, kick off disc one. Her early pop-country period, which included several of her best-selling albums, such as Luxury Liner, Pieces of the Sky, Elite Hotel, and Quarter Moon in a Ten Cent Sky is under-represented on this box set with only eight selections spanning from 1975 to 1978, but hardcore fans probably already have multiple copies of these classics.
This box set isn't intended as a chronological or complete anthology, but instead is a collection of special musical moments. On Songbird you'll find fabulous examples of Ms. Harris' best musical collaborations including her work with Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt, Guy Clark, Steve Earle, and George Jones. Sound quality on these three CDs varies drastically. Sure, you can expect the earliest stuff such as "Clocks" to sound a little funky, but Harris' voice is so pure that any recording glitches or distortion stick out in bas relief regardless of where or when the recordings were made. On the song "First in Line" recorded in 1990, you can hear the distracting grainy fur of harmonic distortion on Harris' voice that mars the sterling performances by Harris and John Starling (which is probably why it wasn't released on Starling's album.)
The DVD includes live performances as well as music videos, such as a live version of "Together Again" from 1975, a campy promo video of "Mr. Sandman" from 1981, and a luminous live reading of "Love Hurts" with Elvis Costello from a 2006 Live at the Grand Ol Opry broadcast. Video quality isn't too awful on the early performances, but it's certainly not HD quality either. Don't expect to be able to read the headstock decal on James Burton's Telecaster.
Although not cheap with a list price of $75 ($55 to $65 street), the Songbird box set still costs less than you'd pay to download each song individually from the i-Tunes store. And you get that cool book full of pix and stuff. Of course any Emmylou Harris fan must have this box, but it delivers such a fine overview of her career that even relatively new fans should appreciate its many virtues.