In Conversation: Emmylou Harris

"From the very beginning, I always thought of myself as an instrument to tell stories..."

Emmylou Harris is an artist who has built a singular catalogue.

One of the foremost voices in country music, she’s a songwriter who has created work that spans generations, uniting some of the deepest facets of American music with a songbook that stretches out into the 21st century.

Working tirelessly, Emmylou has recorded frequently, and performed even more frequently, leaving behind her a seemingly endless trail of concerts, studio endeavours, partnerships and collaborations.

‘New’ album – if it can be called new – ‘Ramble In Music City: The Lost Concert’ is a glimpse into her past, a look at one of her most formidable live ensembles coming into place.

The Nash Ramblers featured some of the top names in country music, and the line up allowed Emmylou to take her music to a different place entirely, breaking with her long-standing Hot Band. A show was arranged at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center in Nashville, and the tapes set to roll – but then, somehow, the concert was allowed to fade into memory, the masters left on a shelf somewhere.

Uncovered last year, ‘Ramble In Music City: The Lost Concert’ is a thrilling exposition of Emmylou Harris’ artistry, a glimpse of a significant figure in the evolution of American music undergoing a transition of her own. More acoustic than her previous work but no less striking, it’s arguably the cornerstone for what came next, signalling a renewal of her roots.

Out now, Clash spoke to Emmylou amid an uncharacteristic heatwave in London. “Oh it’s scorching here too!” she replied gracefully. “But I suppose we’re a little more used to it here in Nashville”.

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The new live album was recorded in 1990 but then lay in a vault for three decades – it must have been a surreal experience to listen back to it? Well, yeah, like 30 years.

Yeah, it was an incredible surprise. And what a delight to discover this. I just felt that people needed to hear it. The playing on it was so extraordinary. And you know, it was a blast from the past, but just musically, I felt it was so good. And I am so grateful to Nonesuch for putting it out.

What were the emotions like when you listened back to this tape for the first time? What did it feel like?

I just went: man, we're good! And of course, it's bittersweet… because we lost Roy Huskey, God, early on in 1996 I think and then also my dear friend John Sterling, who kind of encouraged me to put this band together. That's why I've dedicated the album to both of them.

And if we can look back on putting that band together, what was it that you really wanted from that sound? What was it that you wanted that band to really get across?

Well, I think at that point I was tired of riding that same pony… as great as it is! And also, I think I'd been singing and touring so much that I felt that my voice was a little tired. I was having a conversation with John Sterling. And you know, I had this fantasy. Over the years I’ve said, oh I'm going to take a year off – which of course I never do! – so, maybe I should put together an acoustic band and that was the opening that John needed. And he said, listen, he said, that's exactly what you need to do. He said, and I know that Sam Bush is leaving his band and you get Sam, and then put the rest together. And so that's exactly what I did. And as it turned out, all the bits and pieces that seem to come together.

For you as a vocalist, what's it like to sing over a full acoustic backing? Does that bring out something in your voice that is slightly different to other arrangements do you think?

Yeah, I think you hit the nail on the head there. What happens when you're singing is that you’re singing in response to what you're hearing, even if you're not thinking about it, even if you don't know it. And so, all the songs, all the arrangements were kind of the same, but because of the different instrumentation… first of all, it wasn't as loud. So I think it was possibly a quieter sound.

And then I've always emphasised harmony singing but that became even a bigger part of it – those bluegrass harmonies on the old country material that I've been doing. It made everything new and fresh, even though I had been doing those songs for years. It was a certain freshness to it you know, it wasn't a huge change. It wasn't like all of a sudden I was doing completely different material or singing in a different style. Sometimes that's all you need to give yourself a burst of energy and a burst of creative energy.

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The setlist is fantastic. Can you remember picking out those songs?

Well, really, I was just dealing with the stuff that I'd been doing with the Hot Band. But it's interesting that there was one song we found when the tapes were discovered. I was listening to them, and this song comes on that I go, what is that? And then Sam's voice comes on singing lead. And then I remembered it! It was a great song called ‘The Price I Pay’, and Sam had forgotten about plying it. And he said he was listening to this intro and and he was thinking, what is this song? And I don't know why it kind of dropped from the Rambler playlist. I think we got right into doing another record after that. So somehow that song got lost in the shuffle and it was wonderful to rediscover that because the performance is incredible.

Playing Nashville must be such a special experience for you, too.

Well, of course, it's my hometown. So yeah, it's great, because I don't have to travel very far! We’d done a lot of European shows before that one, and so when we came to Nashville for the show we were good and greasy. But it was a real surprise, you know, a real gift to hear it and remember what a great band it was, and all the fun we had playing. The sound is fantastic and the audience was wonderful. So I guess we really lucked out.

Are you a nostalgic person by nature?

Well, I think everybody is nostalgic at times, but usually it hits you. It surprises you, I think. It's not like you decide, I'm gonna sit down and think about the past… and as you get older there's more to think about isn't there?

That’s a very good point. You’ve worked tirelessly over the years – where does that work ethic come from?

I think my family. My aunts, uncles, my parents, my grandparents. You know, that generation… They just knew they had responsibilities, and they took care of their family and the people around them. I guess it was just by osmosis. But also, I have to say that I love my work. I saw a quote, where Willie Nelson was asked: Willie, when are you going to retire? And he said: Well, all I do is play music and play golf. So which one do you want me to give up? And I don't play golf! And music… I still love playing music. They're going to have to pull me off the stage with a hook, I guess.

The past 12 months have wiped out live shows, how has it been for you?

You know, I actually have a kind of a special situation. I mainly do one-off shows, and most of the big gigs were moved to this year. But I always do some benefits in Nashville, for my dog rescue and for another social enterprise that works with young people and animals. I always get people to sit in with me – they created a performance space in their parking lot. And with a limited audience and live streams they could make up for the lack of the full audience so that they could actually get the amount of money that they had promised these organisations.

So I actually did four very lovely concerts. And I guess that was enough for me – obviously, it wasn't a full banquet but it was really good. And I actually enjoyed being at home, being, you know, spending time with my animals and my dog rescue, we were able to keep that going, although on a much more limited basis. And we just sort of did what we had to do.

But I was fortunate that I, you know, I understand I was fortunate that I could ride it out without being affected financially. I realise how difficult it's been for so many musicians who are not in my position.

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And how about songwriting? Have you written anything in the past 12 months?

No, I’ve sort of taken off the songwriting hat. I'm working on a memoir and that's pretty much what my writing is. I don't know, I just, I don't feel the need. I feel like at this point, I – as far as songs go – I've said everything I want to say. I don't feel that urgency. And, I have an album coming out that I recorded 30 years ago, so I already did the hard work of that!

Some of these songs have been in your life for some time, how do you get to the emotional centre of a song?

Early on I think I had an ear – if you want to use that word – for a good lyric, that was full of meaning and poetry. But the longer you live, the deeper you go, and the more your heart grows from all your experiences, I think you relate more. But I don't think it's something that I consciously think about. I mean, when I'm singing I allow the song, and the lyrics, and the music to carry me. From the very beginning, I always thought of myself as an instrument to tell stories.

Some of my favourite vocals by you are on those records you made with Gram Parsons – what was it like to work with him?

Well that was such a revelatory experience. It was a gift. Somehow, I discovered that joy of harmony, and just giving myself over to be a harmony singer against his lead… I really felt like I had discovered my own meaning. That was huge for me. And in my life as an artist, I really don't believe I would have discovered myself as a singer, or become the singer that I am now, without working with Gram.

That moment with Gram, was like the Big Bang. I just love singing harmony with other people. It's all about serving the song. It just is such a joy to sing on your own and then singing with other people is another kind of joy… creating that third voice. And it's always unique, because everyone's voice is unique.

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 ‘Ramble In Music City: The Lost Concert’ is out now.

Words: Robin Murray

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