"Sally Rose" was a pseudonym Harris used when she was on tour with her group The Hot Band, which she assembled to tour behind her 1975 album Pieces of the Sky. Two members of the group, James Burton and Glen D. Hardin, were also part of Elvis Presley's touring lineup.
To keep overeager fans at bay, Harris' road manager would say that she was "Sally Rose," and that's also the name she used to check into hotels. The fake band was dubbed "Sally Rose and the Rosebuds," and for some of The Hot Band's early shows, they would be introduced for their first set as the Rosebuds.
Harris began to form a narrative around her Sally Rose character, which was based on incidents from her real life. In the story, Sally is an ingenue who meets an accomplished musician ("The Singer") who takes her under his wing. They get married, but their relationship turns sour when her career takes off and his stagnates. Sally leaves him, but decides to return. She is too late though: the despondent Singer dies in a car accident before she can get there.
This title track is the first song on the concept album and explains Sally's origin story.
Harris was a songwriter from get-go, composing several songs on her first album, which was released in 1969. She only composed one song on her second album, however ("Boulder to Birmingham") and recorded few of her own songs on her next eight albums.
The Ballad of Sally Rose was a breakthrough for Harris, since she co-wrote the majority of the tracks. "I had that idea for a long time," she said in our 2014 interview. "Then Bruce Springsteen put out his Nebraska album [in 1982], and I was so inspired by the bravery of that record and the emotion of that record that I said, 'I've really got to just do this project.'"
The analog to the character in this song who marries Sally would be Gram Parsons, who jump-started Harris' career when he took her on tour and recorded with her in the early '70s. Parsons, an acclaimed singer/songwriter who was a member of The Byrds and The Flying Burrito Brothers, died of a drug overdose in 1973.
Harris wrote this and the other original songs on the album with the British musician Paul Kennerley, who had come to America a few years earlier and began working with Harris. He joined Harris on tour to support the album, and at the end of the tour in 1985, the couple married. He was Emmylou's third husband; they divorced in 1993.
After the album was released, Harris played it in its entirety on her ensuing tour. The full album performance took up her first set, which was followed by a set comprised of her most popular songs.