A Personal History of Music, Day 3: “Where Will I Be” by Emmylou Harris

John Scalzi

In March of 1996, I left the job I had been working at for five years — film critic for the Fresno Bee — and joined a then up-and-coming technology company called America Online as their in-house writer and editor. I had joined AOL for two reasons: The first was that the Bee wanted to put me in a more general reporting position after years of being a critic and columnist, and I was unhappy with that unilateral change, and the second was that AOL was part of this exciting new thing called “The Online World,” which represented the future, and the future was where I wanted to be. There was also a third reason, which was that AOL offered twice the salary I was getting at the Bee, and, well, I liked that, too.

Going to AOL was not without its complications. I was traveling from California to Northern Virginia, where I knew almost no one and where I had never lived, and my wife of less than a year had to stay behind in California for a couple of months to wrap up some things. I was going to be alone in a new place, with a new job, with new people, none of whom I yet knew. It was a weird interstitial time for me, and it made me feel reflective and introspective about who I was and where my life was going.

As it happens, a few months earlier, Emmylou Harris had released Wrecking Ball, an album that represented some very similar themes. Harris had with her last few albums gotten to a point where it looked like her career had gone as far as it was going to go; she was beloved but she wasn’t getting much radio airplay, and she felt at odds with the culture of country music of that era. Rather than attempt to fit in, she connected with producer Daniel Lanois and the two of them created an album that no one expected from her, one that helped shape in the in-between-folk-and-country-and-rock subgenre called “Americana,” and which found Harris openly questioning her place in the world, a questioning nowhere better represented than in the opening track, “Where Will I Be.”

I had bought and loved Wrecking Ball when I was still in Fresno — I’d not been a Harris fan before, but I was long an admirer of Lanois, so I bought the album on his association — but it was in Northern Virginia that this song and the whole of Harris’ album sank into my soul. Although I didn’t know it at the time, I was homesick and especially missing my wife, and while I was already making friendships with people that would last even to this day, they weren’t yet in a place where they were soul-filling. I was adrift, like Harris’ music on Wrecking Ball suggested she was adrift. This album and particularly this song became my solace.

This ends happily: After a couple of months Krissy traveled to Northern Virginia to stay with me, and I got to introduce her to my new friends, who became our new friends, and we ended being very happy in the area until we moved, in 2001, to be closer to her family in Ohio. The first concert Krissy and I went to together in Northern Virginia, as it happens, was to see Emmylou Harris on her Wrecking Ball tour. She was wonderful.

A couple of years later, Wrecking Ball was playing in the room when Krissy was giving birth to our daughter Athena, who was born to the song “Waltz Across Texas Tonight.” And I’ve been an Emmylou Harris fan ever since, going backwards and forwards in her discography from Wrecking Ball.

If I had to pick one album of all the ones I have as my all-time favorite, Wrecking Ball is likely to be it — for the stunning quality of the album itself, but also for what it represented to me, and did for me, in a lonely, slightly lost time of my life. The opening chiming guitar of “Where Will I Be” takes me back to the moment, and also to the knowledge that thanks to that song, that album, and Emmylou Harris, I had something beautiful to hold onto until that moment passed, and a good life followed.

— JS

19 Comments on “A Personal History of Music, Day 3: “Where Will I Be” by Emmylou Harris”

  1. Nice. I’ve loved Emmylou for years, we’ve gotten to see her several times (including her Lantern Tours for refugees) over the years. I’d probably go with her ELITE HOTEL or LUXURY LINER, but then, I’m 20 years older than you..

  2. I’m loving this “personal history of music” feature. I hope you can keep it going all month. Learning about songs I never heard elsewhere (except for Yaz, of course).

  3. We used to call it America On Hold. I tried it in the beginning when it came bundled with GeOS. You had to leave Windows and boot up an entirely different operating system just to use AOL. And only AOL. That didn’t last long for me.

  4. Thanks for that. My favorite Emmy Lou Harris song is “Red Dirt Girl.” Here’s a link to a version of it performed live by First Aid Kit, with a full orchestra at an awards ceremony. Ms. Harris was in the audience. As the saying goes, “My sleeve is wet with tears.”

  5. The electronic Banjo in the version I heard on Yoputue had some “The Edge” overtones. Is that possible once I read that Lannois was involved?

  6. I’m liking this new music feature – it’s a little like an autobiography in slices. Nice retrospective, very point in time.

    I’m not sure if you’ve said if you made out like a bandit with AOL stock in prior columns? I suspect maybe not (timing to sell being everything), as I think you had a Real Job ™ after the AOL gig and didn’t go straight to fiction writing? Obviously no need to answer if too intrusive a question, just wondered. Mu first job in that period paid more in stock than salary which was nice but not retire to Barbados nice.

  7. Emmylou also turned the world on to the amazing Julie Miller (who wrote “All My Tears” on the Wrecking Ball album) and her husband, the incomparable Buddy Miller. I saw her when she toured behind WB. She was backed by a kind of jazz fusion band. I recall Emmylou making fun of herself trying to keep up during instrumental breaks. “Look out! I’m going beyond the fourth fret!” Julie opened the show and I was smitten.

  8. I’m in the range of 20 years older than you. When I was getting ready to move to the mainland from Hawaii, where I grew up, her album “Quarter Moon in a Ten Cent Town” served as part of my transition soundtrack. I’ve always loved Emmylou, and “Wrecking Ball” felt at the time like a similar heads up to what many folks are now having with Kate Bush. Brilliant music/artists will always find new hearts and homes.

  9. Emmylou is great, and Daniel Lanois is one of the greatest producers out there, with an instantly recognizable signature sound as distinctive as Phil Spector’s.

  10. I bought that album on your recommendation many years ago (simultaneously with Acadie if memory serves) and both have special places in special playlists.

  11. This album Is one of my top 10, of all time. It’s extraordinary. Pleased to see you love it too.

  12. I’m guessing that Wolf Trap was the Wrecking Ball tour stop. Only been there once, maybe 9 or 10 years ago; my wife and I spread out a picnic blanket and saw the Bonnie Raitt/Taj Mahal tour.

  13. One of my late Mum’s favourites. We often listened to it together. Such a gorgeous, melancholy album. I brought it home with me but haven’t yet been able to listen to it, even all these years later. I think that you have just given me the motivation, John. Thank you.

  14. Funny, you and I moved to DC area at about the same time. Did you see her at the Birchmere?

  15. I remembered the jazz fusion band Emmylou fronted for the WB tour ( saw her in Asheville, NC)–Spyboy. There exists an Emmylou Harris Spyboy album (called just that produced by Buddy Miller. He also plays brilliant guitar throughout. Most, but not all, of the songs are WB songs, including “Where Will I Be” There is also an incredible nine minute version of “The Maker” by Daniel Lanois that she did at the show I saw.

  16. Emmylou has been my go to introspection artist since “Pieces of the Sky”.

    That expanded as she grew as a musician with Elite Hotel, Luxury Liner, Red Dirt Girl, and Wrecking Ball. That last made her the largest selection of any artist in my collection.

  17. Love Emmylou, we’re very fond of her work with Linda and Dolly on Trio, which is a miracle of an album. We have all her albums… well, probably not all of them, but a lot of them. Red Dirt Girl is great too.

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