Although classified as a country artist by the music industry, Emmilou Harris is more closely aligned with the folk genre as a singer, songwriter. Many of her songs a poignant stories of life in America.
Red Dirt Girl is about the hopes and dreams of youth and the realities of adulthood. It captures the images of a young girl from small town America with big dreams for adventures in the "great big world" but trapped by her birthright. Emmylou successfully conveys the idea of lost potential and dreams through the poetry of this song. The words and melody are hauntingly beautiful.
The song tells the story of Lillian, through the eyes of her best friend, growing up in rural Alabama - "in a Red Dirt Town, just a little south east of Meridian." We meet Lillian on the front porch on a hot summer's day, with her best friend. The two friends are singing along with the radio and watching Lillian's older brother fixing up his '49 Indian motorcycle. Each clings to the promise of youth and the dreams of the future.
Lillian's youthful dreams are sparked by her older brother, who tells her that he is going to "ride the wind, up around the moon and back again" but, his dreams die on the battlefield of Vietnam. Recognizing there is little hope for a future in her hometown, Lillian makes a vow to renounce her heritage and venture out into the great big world. She dares to dream of the day she will leave the life of a Red Dirt Girl for the excitement of the world beyond its borders; but, she never gets "any further across the line then Meridian."
Following the death of her brother, Lillian begins the slippery slide of lost potential and dreams. She grows up to become pregnant by a local boy. Like so many before and after her, she marries young and by the age of 27 is burdened by 5 kids and a husband she doesn't love. She skids further down heartbreak road to ruin with alcohol and pills to deaden the pain of lost youth and dreams. She's trapped in a life she never wanted with no earthly way out. In the end, there are no headlines in the world news to recognize her passing as she lays "her hammer down in the red dirt ground without a sound." Who will mourn her passing beyond her children and friends?
Some may find the lyrics sad and depressing, but the song reveals the truth of many who by virtue of their birthright never get past the "red dirt line" of their upbringing. We all dream of bigger and better things but the harsh realities of life get in the way of our dreams, just as Lillian's did.
To me, the story is not one of sadness but rather a lesson in life. Few of us are headliners. Rather than dwell on dreams unfilled, focus on what is good in our lives. Make a joyful sound by rejoicing in the ordinary events of our life. Take comfort and nurture our friends and family. Dreams are only dreams, life is what we make it.