Emmylou Harris has been hailed as a major figure in several of America’s most important musical movements of the past three decades. A steadfast supporter of roots music and a skilled interpreter of compelling songs, she also has been associated with a diverse array of admiring collaborators.
Harris’ contributions to country-rock, the bluegrass revival, folk music, and the Americana movement are widely lauded, and in recent years she also has carved out a sound that is uniquely her own. Her 1995 Wrecking Ball was a watershed album for her, combining several world-music elements with acoustic instruments, driving percussion, and a folk/ roots flavor. The new style would evolve on a number of Harris’ subsequent releases, including 1998’s Spyboy, 1999’s Western Wall (a collaboration with Linda Ronstadt), and 2000’s Red Dirt Girl, which was praised as a showcase for Emmylou Harris’s songwriting talent.
“I don’t know how to explain this ‘late blooming’ as a writer,” Harris comments. “I did start out as a writer. There’s that first, thankfully forgotten, album [1970’s obscure Gliding Bird]. I wrote most of the songs on that. Then I think maybe when I got into singing these really classic songs as an interpreter, the level of songs I was singing was so high, to me, that there was probably a little bit of intimidation at work. And I was very happy interpreting. I didn’t feel like anything was missing.”
Harris cites Bruce Springsteen’s 1982 Nebraska as a turning point and an inspiration. At the time, she was feeling artistically “tired” and wanted to challenge herself in a new direction. The result was her acclaimed, self-penned album, The Ballad of Sally Rose. After 1995’s Wrecking Ball, producer Daniel Lanois insisted she write songs for her next album, too.
“Once I’m into the songwriting mode, I just chisel and chisel and chisel away. But sometimes there are these wonderful moments when a song just comes in a snap. That’s like the reward that you’ve earned for all the agony on all the other songs,” Harris says “I don’t know that I have a particular method. When I’m home, I go into that room every day. Strum on the guitar. Try some tunings. Scatter notes around everywhere. I don’t use a computer. I sing into a cassette player and write things down. Towards suppertime, I’ll take a break and watch some TV. Then after everybody has gone to bed, I’ll go back to work until two or three in the morning. Sometimes I’ll go upstairs, because I keep guitars up there, too.”
That she finds time to write at home at all is a wonder. Between 1998 and 2000, for instance, Harris issued a live album with her band Spyboy, worked with Willie Nelson on his much applauded Teatro CD, won her ninth Grammy Award for her Trio II reunion with Linda Ronstadt and Dolly Parton, produced the Gram Parsons tribute album, and issued her much-anticipated Ronstadt collaboration Western Wall.
Between 2000 and the present, she has appeared on the O Brother Where Art Thou Soundtrack and its spin-off Down From the Mountain tour, collaborated with the Chieftains on their Down the Old Plank Road album and TV special, recorded a duet album with Mark Knopfler, performed concerts on behalf of a Landmine Free World, penned liner notes for a Dolly Parton tribute CD, recorded a duet with Rodney Crowell for a Louvin Brothers tribute CD, performed on the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s Will the Circle Be Unbroken III CD, and sang backup on albums for Sheryl Crow, Tracy Chapman, the Dixie Chicks, Patty Griffin, Patty Loveless, Delbert McClinton, Jim Lauderdale, Pam Tillis, and Nanci Griffith, among others.
Emmylou Harris is invited to perform everywhere from the massive Bonnaroo jam-band rock festival to bluegrass concerts: “That just delights me,” she admits. “It proves what I’ve always thought: that people are eclectic in their tastes, just like me. Most people don’t listen to only one kind of music. For the most part, I think people just want to hear good music.”
That is a credo she has lived by throughout her career. Harris took up guitar as a teenager inspired by the folk music of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Judy Collins and Peter, Paul and Mary. Starving-artist stints in Greenwich Village and Nashville led to regular club work in Washington D.C. Country-rock visionary Gram Parsons discovered her there and brought her to Los Angeles to become his duet partner in 1972.
“I lucked into this whole thing,” she comments. “One little millimeter would have made the difference. If my babysitter hadn’t been at that Flying Burrito Brothers concert and given Gram my phone number, if Gram hadn’t come into my life, who knows what would have become of me?”
After apprenticing Parsons, she emerged as a solo star with Pieces of the Sky in 1975. The album electrified the country-music world, becoming the first of her eight consecutive gold or platinum records. Today, Emmylou Harris is regarded as a key figure in a movement that united rock audiences with country traditionalists. She made country music “hip” and brought it to a vast youth market for the first time.