As country music stars go, Emmylou Harris ain’t exactly your typical rhinestone cowgirl.
Creatively autonomous and musically indomitable, Emmylou’s freewheeling spirit has guided her through four decades of pushed boundaries, paired her with some of the world’s foremost icons, and provided a legacy that’s as rich and distinguished as her ethereal voice.
Emmylou Harris was born in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1947. Twenty years later, her ambitions to become a folk singer led her to New York, where her career stalled after an uninspiring debut album. Retreating to Washington D.C. to restore her confidence, it was here that ex-Byrd and Flying Burrito Brother Chris Hillman spotted the singer performing then recommended her to his former colleague Gram Parsons, who was on the lookout for a female counterpart to join him. Eventually accepting the offer to accompany Parsons, Emmylou found herself converted to the same influences as the country rock pioneer. Their divine partnership endured through almost two years and as many albums until Gram’s death in 1973, whereupon the prospect of continuing alone was as daunting as it was necessary.
Fast forward thirty-five years, and Clash finds Emmylou in a central London Hotel one sizzling May day. She glides into the room, as delicate as ever, and sits opposite Clash with two bowls of fruit at her side. Gone is the straight brown hair that once hung down her back, replaced with dignified waves of grey that disclose as much history as we will subsequently share in our half hour together.
When you tour the world, are you noticing many new fans coming to your shows? Is your music attracting younger people?
There’s a lot of prejudice against country music – at least there used to be
Well, it’s very hard to say, you know? It seems like it’s been just the same wonderful group of people. I mean, from the very first album when I came over, before ‘Pieces Of The Sky’, there was an audience. I’m sure it was because of my association with Gram. It was probably a curiosity factor and also just wanting to have something to do with all things Gram, because he had a pretty intense following. But I think it grew from there. And then with ‘Wrecking Ball’, some people…left the fold (laughs), but I think it did bring in probably some new fans. Once again there might have been that curiosity factor, but I think that we showed that there was more than just…there was something substantial there that touched people. I really believe that that’s the real test; if people are touched by your music then they’ll continue to come and see you, and that’s what you’re striving for with every record.
When you’re labelled a “country” artist, perhaps outside of America it doesn’t have the sales that it does there…
Well actually, people, I think, overseas understand country. They look on it more as exotic and it’s more formidable. There’s a lot of prejudice against country music – at least there used to be. Now it’s accepted very widely as a popular form, but oddly enough it’s been very watered down, in my opinion, so that really it doesn’t have much to do with the country that brought me into it – George Jones, The Louvin Brothers, Loretta Lynn and of course Bill Monroe, a heavy dose of bluegrass, and the folk, the very traditional stuff that gave to me its force and its blood, its life force. Now it’s very popular as a form, so I did find myself in kind of a bit of a quandary, because before I had said, “I want to be considered a country artist” – because I was so late in coming to embrace country music through Gram – so it was like I know I wasn’t born into it, but I was born again! (Laughs) I was born again into it. And so I came to it with the passion of a convert, and wanted to say, “Look, I know that you’re probably like me, you’ve probably never listened to it, but if you just give it a chance; listen to the soulfulness in George Jones’ voice, listen to these beautiful harmonies, listen to this music that is such a treasure”. But then, with ‘Wrecking Ball’ of course, you know, the idea being, ‘Well, if I am a country artist then you must accept that I am going over into this particular territory and if it’s coming through me you have to accept it as country’. But there’s so much identification confusion and crisis about who is what. There’s a certain point where you kind of want to get rid of the categories, but on the other hand, in the beginning I very much wanted to be accepted in that genre of country music. So now, if I say I’m a country artist, people might be a little confused, but I’ve decided that that’s where I started, you know? It’s like trying to say, ‘I wasn’t born there. I’m not really from Alabama. I decided I’m gonna be from here’. Ultimately, people just make music and you have to leave it to other folks to decide what category they’re going to put you in. The only place that really matters, probably, is where they rack you in the music stores!
Well, you’re being inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame next month…
I guess I have to be country music now! I’m proud of it.
It’s an impressive museum.
I’ve seen myself in bronze and it’s not too bad.
So this means you are definitely considered country now?
Well yes, of course I am, and I’m proud. It’s very strange; it wasn’t like I was one of these huge million-selling artists or even a genre-bending artist – it’s hard to think of one’s self in the company of the Carter Family and Hank Williams. It’s a bit humbling, but I’m in the process of learning to absorb and accept it. On the other hand I’m not done yet; I mean I’ve still hopefully got a lot more music to make, but it’s grand company to be in.
There’s a quote from you that says, “I was very inspired by Gram’s music. In my own way, I was trying to carry on his music”. What kind of attributes were you trying to infuse into your own music?
Well, he kind of taught me everything. I was a folk singer who was trying to be Joan Baez and Judy Collins. I had a pretty voice like a lot of other up and coming folk singers, but basically I didn’t have a ‘voice’, if you know what I mean; I didn’t have a style or a voice of my own. And in singing country, I was singing in a folk voice. I didn’t have what you would consider a true country voice like Loretta Lynn, Kitty [Wells] or Tammy [Wynette], or some of the younger singers; Tanya Tucker – great voice. But my voice was always more on the side of folk. Even Dolly; Dolly was always considered like a mountain singer. I suppose I was closer to her than the more traditional country singers. And so, singing country with him [Gram] and basically singing harmony, it gave me a chance to season my voice and hone it in a way that I don’t think I would have ever come up with what I do without him. And of course it gave me a love of country music and made me realise that it’s not about all the acrobatics and the things you can do with your voice – it’s basically about the words and the melody and the vowel sounds, and that will carry you. It’s kind of hard to explain because it was just a process that happened, but I really can’t imagine that I would be sitting here talking to you with all these albums and success behind me if I hadn’t – through the mystery of the universe – had this meeting with this guy [Gram].
You’ve followed your own path within the country restraints, chasing your own muse. Is achieving that more important to you than commercial success?
Well it kind of had to be! (Laughs) Oh yeah, because I was lucky. You see, I don’t know what would have happened to me if I’d had some kind of enormous success in the beginning. I kind of imagine that would be very difficult. Especially if I had somehow not been with people who encouraged me to just do what I wanted; if they had said, ‘Oh here’s a great song, sing this’ and I’d just done what they’d told me. But I was fortunate that I was with people who encouraged me to follow this newly discovered voice and this path that I felt I was on even though I didn’t know where it was going to lead. I had a great manager in Ed Tickner; I had a wonderful record company in Warner Reprise, who very much liked the idea of people kind of being out there in leftfield; I had a wonderful producer in Brian Aherne, who really encouraged me to honour my instincts – he taught me how to make records; and then I had this fabulous band of musicians that had worked with Gram; very professional musicians who were not watching the clock, and who understood that there was something going on here – there was kind of a discovery going on and we were actually having fun making music. And then the record was successful; I mean in the sense of just being on the charts was an amazing thing for me. So there was an audience out there, and getting back to the first thing I said, I think a lot of it was a curiosity about Gram, and it actually started overseas. My manager was smart enough to understand that there was probably an audience for me overseas before there might have been one in the States. So I came over and promoted this record – ‘Pieces Of The Sky’, the first [solo] record – before it ever came out. And then by the time we played The New Vic [in London] to a sold out crowd, there was like this sense of excitement in the street going on about the band. I had James Burton in my band; people who were revered. Because audiences over here, they know the whole story. They know the songwriters, they know who played on the record, they know the musicians, they know the discography or the history of the musicians…they know everything! So it was a great thing to have that sense of excitement about what I was doing kind of carried over across the Atlantic when I started playing. And then I actually had a Top 5 record on the country charts with an old Louvin Brothers song [‘If I Could Only Win Your Love’]. So then that kind of opened the doors to Nashville and country radio, but apparently there was also pop interest, you know? People that follow those things realised that people who bought my records were also buying Talking Heads records, so they’re going, ‘Something’s going on here’! But fortunately I never had to pay attention to that. I just had this great band, this great producer, I had a lot of energy and I just wanted to go into the studio and make more music. And really, with a few interruptions, that’s all I’ve really been doing.
Did you have to convince James and Glen to join your band or was it quite an easy decision for them to make?
No, they wanted to join the band, and the record company realised there was something going on there, so they put money into the tour – because obviously I wasn’t making enough money opening for James Taylor or Bread or Ozark Mountain Daredevils with occasional forays into headlining a club, maybe two shows a night; that was the first tour. So they got at least a fairly decent salary. I still think that they took less than they would have got with Elvis – I was the off season! But how fantastic it was to play with those guys – and the whole band. Rodney Crowell was in the band, Hank DeVito, John Ware, then James and Glen. It was something very special. We had a chemistry, we loved what we were doing, and it wasn’t that thing of, you know, headlining 20,000. I was able to learn how to stand in front of a band, you understand? I’d never done that before.
Been a bandleader?
Yeah. After Gram died, I put together a little band of local musicians in Washington D.C. and did that in little clubs six nights a week locally. That’s the first time I’d even been a bandleader. I’d been in Gram’s band but just as a rhythm guitar player and duet singer. So I did start mine there, but as far as going outside of my hometown – which was D.C. at the time – and playing for people, I had so much confidence in these guys that were behind me. My thinking was, ‘They might not like me, but they’re gonna like James’. I’ve got this great band, so I felt like I was in a protective bubble somehow and I could learn. [To read Clash’s interview with the incredible guitarist James Burton, click HERE]
You’ve got Glen playing on a number of tracks on your new album. That must have been a thrill to work with him again.
It was wonderful to have Glen. One of my favourite people in the world. A great storyteller. Great company to be around.
Basically I think it’s just my usual themes: love, death, grief and carrying on
You’ve sang duets with many different artists from Ryan Adams to Neil Young and Bob Dylan [Emmylou sang on most of his album ‘Desire’]. What’s your role when you go in to sing with someone? Are you just there to help someone else out?
You mean when somebody brings me into their project?
Well, yeah, it’s a collaboration. Usually I’m just there to sing harmony. So basically I’m just another instrument. I’m singing an alternative lead, because I don’t quite know like what is the tenor or what is the baritone; if it’s a three-part thing, usually somebody has to show me my part, because I’m very greedy and I take whatever notes I want. In a duet you can do that. So once again, it’s the words and the melody; you’re just singing an alternative melody to what the lead singer is doing. In the case of something like the Mark Knopfler album [‘All The Roadrunning’, 2006], he actually wanted me to sing lead on some things, so it was great; I was able to wear both hats there. But it’s all about serving the song – that’s all it’s about.
You were quite a late developer in your own songwriting. Your first few solo albums were predominantly covers or material from other people. Most of the songs you chose were written by men and singing about women. Did you think about this when you chose it?
No, I just liked the words. If it appeals to me on a poetic level, if I like what the story is singing, then I’ll sing it. I never really worried about gender. I think that there are some songs that are gender specific, but then I broke that rule myself on ‘Broken Man’s Lament’ [on this album]. I loved that song from the first time I heard it. That record came out around the time I moved to Nashville in 1983, I think. I might be wrong – it might have come out a little earlier or a little later – but I know I heard the record pretty soon after I moved to Nashville. I thought it was an amazing song. I mean lines like, “You can tune and make a diesel hum just like Patsy Cline”. I mean, you don’t get lines like that too often. And so I kept thinking I would record it at some point; I knew there’d be some project in which I could use it. Then it came around that a songwriter friend of mine, Beth Nielsen Chapman – this was last year; we were doing a show honouring Chet Atkins, to raise money for his charity that he had always supported when he was alive – one of the many actually – and we were sitting around backstage and she said, “You know, you ought to do that song ‘Broken Man’s Lament’ by Mark Germino”, and I said, “I can’t believe that you mentioned that. I’ve had that on a list of things to record for twenty years.” Then she said, “Well I’ve been thinking about doing it but you’re the one who should do it”. I appreciated her reminding me of that song, because when we were looking around for some songs to do with the band…A lot of this record was done with Brian [Aherne, producer] and I, just me and an acoustic guitar and a vocal sitting around building the tracks up, but we decided we wanted to cut some tracks with a band – bass and drums and all the instruments. I said, “What do you think about this song? I tried to make it into third-person, but I just think it has so much power in the first-person, and I just see myself like someone writing a short story in the first-person and you don’t really care whether it’s a man or a woman that’s telling this story.”.And he agreed, so I just threw caution to the wind and said, “It’s just too good a song. People need to hear this song.” So we cut it and I think that was our second take. We just cut it live.
When you are collecting songs for one of your albums, do you have a general theme in mind that binds them together, or are they just songs that you like?
Well, it has to be songs that I like. I started, really, this album had no theme whatsoever. Usually you start with [chuckles] at least a couple of songs and you think it’s going to reveal itself – it always does reveal itself somehow. Sometimes in a way that couldn’t be imagined. This album, I guess we started it in 2005 – I thought we started it earlier – the songs that I had written just came from what I had in my ‘larder’. [Chuckles] I had some old songs that I decided to finish and then I had the newer songs, which were the two songs that I wrote with Kate and Anna [McGarrigle]. We cut demos of those up in Montreal when we finished them, then were able to use those bare tracks, because we had a click track, and so we added stuff that we were able to keep – Kate’s guitar, which was the real nuts and bolts of the track, and their vocals – their beautiful, beautiful harmonies, which is like having this treasure. You cannot duplicate something like that. It’s kinda hard to get them down out from their nest to come down and work, but fortunately they were more than usable; they were beautiful. But I’m trying to answer your question; this was just a work in progress for about three years, I guess, and at the end of the day I wasn’t sure what the theme was. Basically I think it’s just my usual themes: love, death, grief and carrying on. What else is there? (Laughs)
Many artists spend all their creative energy in their youth and struggle to recapture that magic. You seem to have excelled yourself and are now making the best music of your career, something which very few artists can claim. To what do you attribute this reawakening as it were?
I didn’t have that instant huge success where you go from nobody knowing who you are except for maybe a few people in Washington D.C. to all of a sudden national attention. So obviously that’s huge, even though it wasn’t like all of a sudden I had the biggest record in the country or anything. It was just enough to get me out of the chute, and basically I continued on pretty much evenly. It’s true that with ‘Wrecking Ball’ there was a resurgence and a renewed interest. And also other things that kept me going, like ‘Trio’ [the collaboration with Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt], when I had completely dropped off of country radio but still had my fanbase – I could still make a living and tour and I was still making records and everything. I never completely disappeared – I was always out there chugging along. But to have the wonderful attention and the joy of the ‘Trio’ records and then – I suppose if you had to put little marks on the map – then of course ‘Wrecking Ball’, I’ve just been very, very fortunate. I can’t really explain it. This is the only thing I know how to do, and I’ve been fortunate – literally – just to make a living, plus have a pretty good time and meet some pretty great people. And of course I had the record with Mark Knopfler, which was a great excursion into another world and great music and wonderful musical company. It’s been fantastic, but as I say, I’m assuming I’m not done yet. I still figure I’ll probably have to make another record. And with Rhino, we just put out this gargantuan box set [‘Portraits’] that makes a great door stop, as well as there’s some good music there! They want to put out the complete ‘Trio’, which should come out sometime this year – that’s the plan anyway. I believe my record company – Nonesuch, who are so great – want to re-release ‘Wrecking Ball’ with the outtakes and the DVD. I would really like that. I’m hoping that Rhino will at some point re-release ‘The Ballad Of Sally Rose’ with all the original demos, because I really still believe in that album, even though it was a commercial disaster from which I barely escaped! (Laughs)
Do you still listen to your old records? Do you revisit them when working on those kinds of projects?
You have to. I had to listen to a lot of stuff. I was the one who picked all the songs for the ‘Songbird’ compilation [2007 collection of rare and forgotten tracks] – that was almost eighty songs. Plus the DVD stuff, on which I had to watch myself progress from a brunette into the future, (laughs) from 1976 on up to the present. So yes you do have to listen. There were some lovely surprises. I don’t sit down for pleasure and listen to myself, just because there’s so much other stuff to listen to, but I will say that there were some lovely surprises. Like, I’d completely forgotten about ‘Mama’s Hungry Eyes’ that I did with Rodney Crowell for a project for Second Harvest, which feeds the hungry. I listened to that and I went, ‘Damn, we’re good!’ We’d got the original Hot Band back together and I always loved singing with Rodney and I always loved our duets, and I hadn’t heard that in years, so that was a pleasure. And then obviously there are other things that didn’t go on the box set that I went, ‘Oh dear!’ (Laughs)
Will there be any more ‘Trio’ stuff?
I don’t think there will be any more ‘Trio’ stuff. It was just… our schedules are so disparate. I mean, Dolly, bless her heart, after cancelling on me for reasons that couldn’t be helped to sing on this record – she very much wanted to - she was in Los Angeles and when we got down to the deadline she got on her bus and travelled all the way to Nashville. She got in that night and the next morning at ten o’clock she was there in the studio singing her absolutely beautiful dulcet tones on that song ‘Gold’. But you can see it’s just very difficult. And Linda isn’t doing much singing anymore, and I intend to have a talk to her about that. She should not be withholding her gorgeous voice; one of the most beautiful voices of our lifetime. I just want Linda to start singing again and that would be enough for me.
Your own voice is beautiful; it’s unique, it’s your signature. I believe you had problems with your voice in the early Nineties and found it hard to project it onstage?
Oh gosh, I had a viral cough, and if you know about those things it takes about six weeks of doing nothing to get rid of it, and I just couldn’t bring myself to stop the tour, you know? I was right in the middle of a tour. So I would take a couple of days off and maybe one show, and I just got to the point where I was just crawling over the finish line. But even then I didn’t feel like I could stop. I did postpone going into the studio, but it was just the wear and tear of constant touring. Taking time off has been the hardest thing for me in my career. I don’t have any regrets, but I do think that sometimes you have to let the field lie fallow so that you can cogitate and rest, but I tend to have a great energy so it’s very difficult for me to excuse myself from the work.
Did you worry about your future and your livelihood?
No, I don’t worry, because my voice is tough. I mean, I might have lost a couple of notes here and there, but I feel you compensate for it with muscle and blood and experience. I never worried. My range was never of the category of somebody like Phoebe Snow or Linda Ronstadt, so I never had to count on those notes to be able to accommodate my repertoire. I figure if something catastrophic happens then it’s what happens. I’m gonna keep working as long as I can. As long as I’m enjoying it and I really feel like I have something to say and something to contribute, but even then, if I don’t know it, I hope somebody will bring out the hook! (Laughs) Do me a favour!
Is there anything you would still like to achieve? You’ve won so many awards and you have other humanitarian work outside of music, so what’s left that you’d like to do?
I don’t think so, not on the music front. I’ve got very, very involved in animal rescue and more and more I would like to be able to spend time doing that, not just hands on; I have a small rescue in my yard. But I’ve got involved in local and national agencies trying to promote the problem and see what can be done about it. So really I just trust that at some point there will be another song that I just can’t wait to get in to the studio and record. But I don’t really think too far ahead in the future. I try to do what we’re supposed to do, what all major religions tell us to do, which is ‘live in the moment’, (laughs) and music helps you do that, I think.
‘All I Intended To Be’ is out now on Nonesuch Records