©By Bill DeYoung
Serendipity, what Webster loosely defines as “dumb luck,” is an important concept for Emmylou Harris. The most admired and influential female vocalist in modern country music, she refers to her career as a series of fateful incidents, one thing or one person leading to another, and so on. Twenty–one years of peerless recordings, of hard work and diligence and the supreme exercise of God–given talent, and she very humbly passes it all off as little more than charmed good fortune. Serendipity.
Emmylou Harris styled a synthesis of country and pop music that honored and upheld them both, instead of watering one down for the sake of the other. She has explored long–hidden trails on the historical landscape and discovered treasures, then faithfully brought them back to share with everyone. In the mid–70′s, when much of country music meant hackneyed pop knockoffs, she sang the songs of the Louvin Brothers, the Carter Family, Buck Owens and Hank Williams, forging distinctive and durable music with those most workman–like tools, harmony and melody.
But Harris and her producer Brian Ahern weren’t making archivist recordings – their albums rang fresh, and inventive, and they tossed pop and rock songs into the mix, underscoring the primal emotional links between the styles, which had seemed bitterly polar (especially when filtered through those crossover hits of country radio).
She began as a student of country–rock pioneer Gram Parsons, and after his death took the things he’d taught her about real country music, its magic and its magnetism and applied to them a gloriously tactile soprano and first–rate crew of backing musicians. From her first “true” album, Pieces Of The Sky in 1975, to the recentWrecking Ball, Harris’ music has straddled the lines between genres: eclectic, not indulgent, single–minded but hardly one–dimensional.
“It’s hard to describe what I was trying to do, because it’s an intuitive thing,” said the soft–spoken, articulate 49–year–old. “I was very inspired by Gram’s music. In my own way, I was trying to carry on his music. I didn’t know what Gram would have done. I knew that he hated the term ‘country–rock.’ To him, it implied something that was lesser than the sum of the parts.
“And I knew that he loved the beauty of the traditional music, but he infused it with his own poetry. You take a song like ‘Sin City,’ it has all the structure of those beautiful Louvin Brothers songs, but the words could’ve only been written by someone of his generation and his experience.”
Although she’s never reached the commercial peaks of her pals Linda Ronstadt and Dolly Parton, Harris has managed to make one record after another of astounding quality and resonance. She was a decade ahead of the so–called “traditionalist” movement that swept country in the mid ’80s; indeed, she was steadfastly country when country wasn’t cool.
Emmylou Harris still wonders just exactly who her fans are. “I think they’re people who like all different kinds of music and want to be challenged and want to be surprised,” she said. “And are always looking for something different. And I think they want to be moved and changed by music; they don’t want it just as background noise in their lives.”
Said singer/songwriter Rodney Crowell, one of the links in Harris’ serendipitous chain: “There have been a few women who carried that cultural thing that happened in the ’60′s, where artists like Bob Dylan and John Lennon had that kind of mystique that the poetic artists carry. In a lot of ways, she’s been one of the few women to really carry it.
“In the ’60′s, women country singers did not own their intelligence or their integrity so much. Our society being what it is, women were kind of directed by men. And Emmy was kind of the first country artist to stand up with some sort of integrity and not be directed by men; she certainly collaborated with men, but she wasn’t directed by them. Maybe the first feminist, in a way. She doesn’t lead with that one thing.”
And although she writes infrequently, Crowell said, “Emmylou Harris is a supreme artist. “In her way, even as an interpreter, she’s a poet. She’s very sensitive in communications. She communicates with her songs, poetically. The songs she chooses, the language, the atmosphere. It’s her vision.”
The artist, true to form, paints herself in more down–to–earth tones. “It’s very hard to explain, because I do feel that I’m a channel for music,” she said. “I know that sounds a little New Age, perhaps. I know that I’m part of it, but it seems like music comes through us. It’s not like, ‘This is mine, I’m responsible for it completely,’ but it’s so much of who I am and the way I express myself and how I see the world is wrapped up in music that I can’t imagine who I would be without it.”
Just Plain Folk
The younger of Walter and Eugenia Harris’ two children, Emmylou Harris was born April 2, 1947 in Birmingham, Alabama. When Emmy was five, her father, a Marine Corps officer known to his fiends as Bucky, was reported Missing In Action in Korea and spent ten months as a prisoner of war. The family moved from state to state as Bucky’s commission dictated, and eventually it landed in Woodbridge, Virginia, where Emmy and her older brother Rutland attended Woodbridge High.
She was a shy, studious girl who worried about fitting in with the cool kids. A self–described “prig,” Emmylou nevertheless won several beauty pageants (including the “Miss Woodbridge” contest) and was valedictorian upon graduation in 1965. She thought she’d finally found her niche in drama and she won a scholarship to study the thespian arts at the University Of North Carolina in Greensboro.
But music was running in her blood too. An early stab at piano lessons hadn’t produced anything and she blew alto sax in the Woodbridge High marching band, but Harris eventually got the attention she craved by singing with her little Kay acoustic guitar at parties. Her grandfather down in Birmingham had given Emmy the instrument, her first, when she turned 16. She studied chord books and learned all of her favorite Dylan and Baez songs, and briefly considered leaving school “to become Woody Guthrie.”
She had only a passing interest in country music, she recalled. “From sort of a photosynthesis point of view, I got some from my brother, who is a great country fan. I absorbed Buck Owens, Loretta Lynn and Hank Williams and Bill Monroe. But not in the way that I did later on when I started working with Gram. It sort of snuck into my repertoire, into the style that I was accumulating at the time, in my teens.”
This serious, responsible girl inside Harris won out and she pressed on, taking courses at UNC and working weekend gigs with a friend, Mike Williams. He played 12–string and she picked a high–strung Gibson J–50 guitar, on material from writers as diverse as Hank Williams and the Beatles, anything that had simple chords and a lyric she liked. Mostly, she recalled she sang because college was boring and she needed the money.
Harris was determined to be an actress, and after 18 months she quit UNC for Boston University, where they had a better drama program. She spent the end of 1966 and the first half of 1967 earning money for school by waittressing in Virginia Beach, near Norfolk, singing and playing when she could get a gig. In time she changed her mind about acting and chucked it all in for New York City. She never went to Boston U.
A five–year subscriber to Sing Out! Magazine, Harris thought New York’s folk music scene would be thriving when she arrived; instead, she found it virtually nonexistent, as rock ‘n’ roll and psychedelia were all the rage. Disheartened, she moved into the YWCA.
Still, there was work to be had and she eked out a living (“maybe 100 bucks a week”) playing Greenwich Village clubs. In 1968, Harris became a regular at Gerde’s Folk City, where she fell into a circle of songwriters that included Jerry Jeff Walker, Paul Siebel and David Bromberg. “Mainly I listened to folk music,” she said. “I listened to Bob Dylan to Joan Baez to Judy Collins to Ian and Sylvia. I was really into the singer/songwriters of that era. I listened to folk/blues; I loved Mance Lipscomb and Son House, Robert Johnson, Bukka White, Lightnin’ Hopkins, a lot of that. That was my main influence when Gram happened upon me.”
In New York, Harris performed on a couple of local TV shows; she took waittressing gigs and even worked in a bookstore to supplement her meager earnings as a performer.
One reason she never became a popular entertainer was her habit of doing songs she liked, rather than choosing them as potential audience–pleasers. “My repertoire would include Paul Siebel, Joan Baez songs, some Simon and Garfunkel and some songs that I had written myself,” Harris said. “I had quite an eclectic repertoire. I did some Buck Owens, I did a few Hank Williams songs, but I almost did them tongue–in–cheek, I’m ashamed to say. I didn’t get them. I didn’t really get them.”
She married songwriter Tom Slocum in 1969 and in what seemed like a heaven–sent ticket to the top, inked a deal with the folkie label Jubilee. Recorded in a trio of three–hour sessions, Gliding Bird was released in the first part of 1970. Harris was pregnant and her marriage was failing. Gliding Bird was made under very strained circumstances and her memories of the experience are not particularly fond.
“The good thing about that record is that it shows that I was very much into songwriting,” Harris recalled. “Half the songs on there, they’re not the greatest songs in the world, but I’m not embarrassed by them. I wrote like half the album. And I think the song selection, for the most part, was pretty good. I did a Dylan song and a Hank Williams song. So there were some seeds of what was to be.” Her soon–to–be–former husband wrote the album’s title song.
Although Gliding Bird is a gentle, unassuming little folk record (Harris’ rather fruity arrangements owed more than a small debt to Clouds–era Joni Mitchell), her singing was all over the map, exhibiting none of the remarkable control and passionate phrasing that would come to characterize her later work.
“I was struggling and no one was interested in what I was doing,” Harris said. “I got a manager who got me this deal with Jubilee and I made the mistake of not getting a lawyer and not looking into what was going on. I tended to be very passive, as I am still, maybe not so much as I was then, but I just signed the contract and found myself with a company that really wasn’t able to do very much for me. Or wasn’t inclined to. I went in and did a record in three days and didn’t really have a direction, I didn’t really have a style. I don’t think I really got all those bits and pieces. I don’t think that they were forged into anything definable until I worked with Gram.”
Her take on Hank Williams’ “I Saw The Light” was amateurish, her “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” no cousin (distant or otherwise) to Bob Dylan’s original. She also covered Fred Neil’s “Everybody’s Talkin’” and at the request of her producer Ray Ellis and over Emmy’s own objections, Bacharach/David’s “I’ll Never Fall In Love Again.” Of course,Gliding Bird went nowhere (1,300 copies were reportedly sold) and Jubilee billed the artist for $8,000 to cover production costs.
Pregnant, but clinging to a dream of success, Harris gave up on New York and headed for Nashville, where she worked as an art class model (“fully clothed and holding an umbrella, for some reason”) and waited tables in a Polynesian restaurant, before her advancing condition forced her to quit. She landed a few performing gigs, but nothing stuck. And the marriage finally fell apart.
Daughter Hallie was born in the summer of 1970 and when Emmylou found herself buying baby food with food stamps, she realized a change was in order. After eight months in Music City, she and her daughter moved back in with Bucky and Eugenia, who were now on a small farm near Columbia, Maryland, not far from Washington. They welcomed their own little girl back with open arms.
The Fallen Angel
Although her first job was a model–home hostess, it wasn’t long before Emmylou began to pick up the pieces of her career. She made the acquaintance of singer/guitarist John Starling (founder of the Seldom Scene) and his wife, Fayssoux. Bill and Taffy Danoff (who would soon form the Starland Vocal Band) introduced her to guitarist Gerry Mule and bassist Tom Guidera, with whom she formed a performing trio, arranging an eclectic bag of tunes around her vocals. Guidera moved in with Hallie and her mother; he and Harris would remain romantically involved for several years (his bass work can be found on Pieces Of The Sky, her first ‘real’ album, released in 1975).
Washington’s Georgetown District was peppered with rock and folk clubs; it was a subculture all its own and in early 1971 Harris found herself with a reasonably steady gig. The trio played six nights a week, up and down the strip, but mostly at a joint called Clyde’s, the back room of a singles club, where she could sing her so–called “weird and obscure” songs to an audience that by and large had nothing better to do than listen.
One fall evening Rick Roberts and Kenny Wertz, of the Flying Burrito Brothers, dropped into Clyde’s for a beer (the Burritos were playing several nights at the nearby Cellar Door club, which routinely booked big–time acts). Roberts was impressed with Harris’s reading of Kitty Wells’ “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels” and the next night he returned with Chris Hillman to show her off.
Hillman, the ex–Byrd who had formed the Burrito Brothers with singer/songwriter Gram Parsons, was at that moment weighing an offer from Stephen Stills to put the band Manassas together. Since Parsons’ departure the year before, the Burritos’ fortunes had been fading (not that they’d ever been all that successful) and, Hillman thought, something had to happen pretty darn quick.
When he heard Emmylou Harris, Hillman thought his problems were solved. He invited her to sit in with the Burritos the next night, which she did, and considered asking her to join the band, thinking that a Linda Ronstadt–type singer might make the Burritos a commodity after all.
Ultimately, Hillman let it go and went with Stills and the Flying Burrito Brothers were retired from active duty. There were a few more concert dates to be honored, however, and Parsons, just back from Europe, where he’d been living the high life with Keith Richards and Anita Pallenberg, agreed to go on the road and sing his old Burrito songs one last time.
Parsons was about to begin recording his first solo album and he’d been talking about finding the perfect girl singer, someone with whom he could sing close harmony, the way his beloved Louvin Brothers sang. Like the Everly Brothers sang. Like George Jones sang with Tammy Wynette.
When the Burritos played a date at the University of Maryland at Baltimore, Hillman told Parsons about this amazing girl they’d met in D.C. He suggested his old buddy go over and check her out.
Gram Parsons was never the alchemist he thought himself. A hippie kid from a rich Florida family, he was a rocker who worshipped at the altar of George Jones and his music blended country’s passion with rock ‘n’ roll’s intensity. It was not a popular concoction during his lifetime.
He’d tried to make the marriage work during his brief tenure with the Byrds, shaping the seminal Sweetheart Of The Rodeo album into something so rural and plain, the group’s fans literally didn’t know what to do with it (most of Parsons’ original lead vocals were replaced by those of audience–friendly Roger McGuinn, anyway). He snatched Hillman from the nest and put together the Burrito Brothers aiming to dig the twang in deeper, but that band never cleared the commercial hurdle, and after two albums he was drugging it up in Europe and Morocco with the Stones, gaining weight and bragging boozily about the solo album he was going to make. He wanted to call it These Blues Have Made A Nigger Out Of Me. His friends were sure he’d lost his mind.
Parsons had a sweet, clear voice with a crack down the middle and a blue, lonesome ceiling. With his charged rock ‘n’ roll backing bands, Parsons played country like the electric hard stuff. And he looked the part with his long hair and rhinestone suits from Nudie’s.
His music wasn’t the poppy country–rock of the Eagles, whom he detested (although Eagle Bernie Leadon, a good friend, was a one–time Burrito Brother), but a raw, honestly–felt hybrid forged from something more than a grievous desire to sell his soul to sound good on the radio and sell a million records (although that would have been nice). Gram Parsons made it work, but it cost him dearly. And before he took his final joyride on the lost highway, he passed the baton to Emmylou Harris.
She was still gigging at Clyde’s when he walked in, heard her sing “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels” and knew, he just knew, that she was the singer he’d been looking for. They performed two songs together at Clyde’s that very first night, for five or ten paying customers.
Parsons and Harris sang together constantly for the last two years of his life. The fey little folkie of Gliding Bird learned how to sing country music and to appreciate it. “He turned me on to the Louvin Brothers, which I just immediately loved,” Harris said. The key, she continued, “was singing with him and singing harmony with him and learning the phrasing; because singing with Gram required you to be extremely restrained and economical. And I realize now in retrospect that that is a real signature of country music; the emotion is in the restraint; and I believe restraint intensifies emotion, especially in music.”
She and Parsons, along with other musician friends, used to stay up into the wee hours, or later, trying to impress each other with one country song after another. Harris was hooked. “I just went completely over the top,” she said. “George Jones, Merle Haggard, Tammy Wynette, of course all of the Louvin Brothers’ stuff. I just listened to country music all the time.”
Parsons’ first solo album, GP, appeared in 1972 (he’d flown Emmy to Los Angeles to sing at the sessions). In early 1973, his manager Eddie Tickner organized the artist’s first (and as it turned out, his only) cross–country tour under his own name. The Fallen Angels (Parsons’ suggestion, the Turkeys, had been quickly vetoed) hit the road for a month, playing in second–string nightclubs and “the better hippie honky–tonks of the nation.” Emmylou Harris was featured prominently; singing at her own mic, center stage next to Parsons.
“My perception at the time was, Emmy would be standing there next to him staring at his face,” recalled Bernie Leadon. “Staring at his mouth and having the ability to get it by some kind of telegraphic twitch or something; where he was going. And if you listen to those records, I wouldn’t be surprised if her enunciation was a microsecond after his.”
Leadon said the Fallen Angels opened a few shows for the Eagles in 1973. He remembered the sparks that flew when Gram and Emmy sang together. “Everybody was enthralled with Emmy’s voice, because it was so ethereal,” he said. “The harmony, I felt at the time, was principally due to her abilities. Having already worked with Gram, I knew that he tended to never rehearse. To put it mildly, what this meant was he really thought it was okay to just rearrange songs on the moment. So length of intros, number of verses before the chorus, number of choruses before the outro, those were all completely negotiable.”
The Fallen Angels went out of their way to ensure Emmy’s safely and comfort (such as it was) on their cross–country Greyhound ride. “They may have been protective of her because she was from back east and she had a kid already,” Leadon said. “I think everybody cared about her a lot because the all saw that she had this innocence and genuineness. And they may have been protective in a literal sense too, as in, ‘hey we don’t want any of this rock ‘n’ roll crap to soil you.’”
Parsons “was always gracious, unbelievably gracious” to Harris, added Leadon. “He really had a southern gentleman quality to him. And he was always extremely affable, you know, he was very pleasant toward women. He was all that.”
The band was recorded live in March 1973 in Long Island radio station WLIR’s studio. In 1982, the edited and re–sequenced show was issued as Sierra Records’ Gram Parsons & The Fallen Angels Live 1973 and reissued on CD eight years later, with more tracks when the “original tapes” were discovered.
The Fallen Angels weren’t a crack band (at times on Live 1973, the rhythm section is awfully out of time) but some of the Parsons/Harris duets spontaneously combust. Particularly good is their duet on “Love Hurts” (it got a Grammy nomination, oddly enough, as “Best Recording by a Country Duo” in 1982) and the traditional country tune “We’ll Sweep Out The Ashes.” Harris’ solo turn, the ironically–titled “Country Baptizing,” showed her vocal style in full evolution; she wants to let go, but still isn’t sure she has the chops to handle the balls–out emotions of the tune.
“When she was working with Gram, she was a little less disciplined than she is now,” observed musician Herb Pedersen, who sang on several Parsons sessions. “Because Gram wasn’t a real disciplined singer at all. He was an emotional singer. Its like Mick and Keith. You listen to them and it works – it may not be the most in–tune stuff in the world, but there’s a lot of heart in it.”
“Love Hurts” was also one of the studio tracks recorded for Grievous Angel, Parsons’ last testament. It was released in January, three months after he’d overdosed in a motel near the Joshua Tree National Monument in the Mohave Desert. He’d finished recording the album only weeks before his death.
Parsons had planned to put Harris’ name prominently on the front cover; his choice for the jacket photo showed the two of them astride a Harley–Davidson motorcycle, shit –eating grins on their faces. Parsons’s widow, who had been jealous of Harris all along, reportedly pitched a fit and had the cover changed to an innocuous picture of Parsons alone. The legend “With Emmylou Harris” appeared in large type on the back, however.
“Gram’s death was like falling off a mountain,” Harris told Cameron Crowe in 1975. “It was a very hard year between his death and the making of my album. A year of throwing myself into a lot of work that my heart wasn’t really into.”
Emmy moved back to D.C., where Tom Guidera had also become a country music convert. With pedal steel player Danny Pendleton and two other musicians, they put together the Angel Band and started gigging around the clubs, playing some of the songs she’d performed with Gram. Eddie Tickner made Harris his number one priority and he convinced Mary Martin, an A&R representative from Warner/Reprise Records (the label that had released Parsons’ solo work) to investigate an Angel Band show in a Washington nightclub.
Emmylou Harris became a Reprise Records recording artist in 1974; with her daughter Hallie in tow, the Angel Band relocated to Los Angeles to begin work on her first true solo album.
Heartbreak and Desire
To produce, Martin paired Harris up with Nova Scotia native Brian Ahern, the mastermind behind Anne Murray’s spate of hits in the early 70′s. She brought the quiet Canadian to hear the Angel Band, and he recorded the performance on a hand–held cassette machine to study at home.
Ahern was renting a contemporary–style house on Lania Lane, on a winding, one–way street in the Coldwater Canyon section of Los Angeles. He turned it into a recording studio; the Neive console was installed in a 19–ton semi truck parked alongside the house. The Enactron Truck, where Emmylou Harris would make her first 10 albums with Brian Ahern, was connected with the home studio via closed circuit TV. The studio band was set up in the living room, in front of the fireplace; solos were cut in an isolation booth inside the truck. The front lawn and driveway were strewn with cables.
The studio band included drummer Ron Tutt, pianist Glen D. Hardin, bassist Emory Gordy Jr. and lead guitarist James Burton, all members of Elvis Presley’s backup band, and all of whom had played on Grievous Angel; other familiar faces included Fayssoux Starling on backing vocals and Bernie Leadon on various stringed instruments. “Brian lived in a back bedroom, and the rest of the house was all just living space part of the time and recording space part of the time,” Leadon said. “That’s how they made the album. It was a constant; they might record at any hour of the day kind of thing.
“The truck was parked at a house up in the hills, near Beverly Hills,” he added, “although it certainly wasn’t the Jed Clampett part of Beverly Hills.” Leadon laughed at his recollection. “I guess there was a Jed Clampett aspect to it, all right.”
Pieces Of The Sky, their first collaboration, got its name from a line in Danny Flowers’ song “Before Believing”, a track recorded with Tom Guidera on bass and a young fiddler from Kentucky named Ricky Skaggs.
Harris wrote the lyrics to “Boulder To Birmingham”, a bittersweet adieu to Parsons (“The hardest part is knowing I’ll survive”) sung in a heartbroken, heartbreaking voice, almost a whisper. Bill Danoff composed the melody (despite a popular story of the day, her line, “I was in the wilderness and the canyon was on fire,” was not about Parsons, whose body was stolen by friends and set ablaze in the Mohave, but a reference to the extensive Coldwater fires of mid 1974).
Ahern and Harris purposely stitched together a mixed bag for Pieces Of The Sky, including country/rock standards (Dolly Parton’s “Coat Of Many Colors,” Merle Haggard’s “Bottle Let Me Down”) a Beatles song (“For No One”) that Harris had done since her early sets at Clyde’s, and Felice and Boudleaux Bryant’s “Sleepless Nights.” There was a bouncy song from Parsons’ heroes, Charlie and Ira Louvin, “If I Could Only Win Your Love.”
At last, she “got” country music. “It’s something that you have to listen to; you have to feel it, ” she said. “It’s an acquired taste, especially for those of us who have come to it through the back door, who didn’t grow up with it. And I think that’s wonderful. If you grow up with it, then maybe you think it has to sound exactly like this. What’s good about coming to music after you’ve listened to other kinds of music is you absorb it, you get it, but it fuses with other things.”
The playing of Pieces Of The Sky was clean and economical, the arrangements tastefully layered, with fiddles and mandolins at every turn. Emmy’s angelic soprano had taken on the razor’s edge of ache and sorrow, what bluegrass musicians called the high lonesome sound.
Despite the steel guitars and other embellishments of tradition, Pieces Of The Skywas more pop than country; but it wasn’t rock ‘n’ roll either. It had little to do with the Eagles’ squeaky–clean “country–rock” which was all the rage at the time, or Linda Ronstadt’s sheeny pop country, and even less in common with commercial country music circa 1975. Pieces Of The Sky had elements of folk, rock ‘n’ roll and very traditional country music; at the center was Harris’ fragile, gossamer voice, breaking from the heartache of “Boulder To Birmingham” and cracking honky–tonk wise (in a mannered sort of way) on Shel Silverstein’s “Queen Of The Silver Dollar.”
“Aside from having that miraculous voice,” wrote Bud Scoppa in his Rolling Stonereview, “She has great personal charm made up in proportionate parts of intelligence, honesty and self–effacement…Harris’ exceptional musical and personal appeal should be sufficient to put her in touch with a good many non–country listeners.”
Ahern’s production strategy centered around the voice; there were no strings, no Jordanaires–type singers crooning behind her. The album was smartly produced with the focus on the correct instrument.
Most importantly, every song was a good one, and no one in country music was doing that.
Herb Pedersen was a singer and banjo player who’d been in the Dillards, the late ’60′s band that had been a kind of hayseed version of the Burrito Brothers. When Ahern and Harris were putting together Pieces Of The Sky, Pedersen was recommended as a harmony singer by Linda Ronstadt, with whom he’d been recording. Harris had met with him during Grievous Angel.
Pedersen recalled that Ahern, a former rock guitarist, was very much in control. “He was very particular about arrangements,” he said. “He was a very schooled musician from Canada before he came down here. He did a lot of the rhythm guitar parts that are on there and he didn’t take credit for them. He was careful about the arrangements and the key choices and the tunes. He didn’t want it to be just another country chick singer.”
Harris, Pederson added, “was very definite about what she wanted to do, too. When I would be in there doing harmony parts, she would be there, listening, to see if it would work for her. She was as much a part of that whole thing as he was, I think.”
Harris recalled holding her breath waiting for her album’s spring 1975 release. “I was pretty nervous about it,” she said. “I didn’t think anybody was gonna ‘get’ the record. I did feel that certain people, whose opinion mattered to me, were going to like a lot of it. People like John Starling, I knew that he really loved ‘If I Could Only Win Your Love’ and I loved that, too. It was just so new to me, making a real record. And it was pretty eclectic.”
She wasn’t worried, she said, “that the album might be too country for the pop charts, or too urban for the country charts” (that of course had been a Gram Parsons trademark). “I don’t know if I even thought that big,” she recalled, “because I remember I was on a promotional tour, the record had just come out and I was sitting in a Sportsman’s Lodge doing interviews when somebody from the record company called me and said, ‘You know you’re number 120 on the pop chart.’ I said, ‘What???!!!’I mean, never in a million years…120, that was okay, just to be on a pop chart. To be on any chart, I couldn’t believe it.”
Ultimately, Harris’ first single, “Too Far Gone” would only make #73 on the country charts, but the follow–up, “If I Could Only Win Your Love” went to #4 and made her a star. Throughout her career, Harris’ singles would hit purely country, her albums sell to a mixed crowd. She was a beacon for fans of progressive country, people who read Rolling Stone, Musician and Crawdaddy and appreciated the level of musicianship and production standards on her albums.
It all started with Pieces Of The Sky. “And that was like day and night,” Harris said. “It was like all of a sudden I went from just this person that had a private life that nobody really knew who you were, to being this other person. It was like my life totally changed. The whole concept of everything I was doing just kind of changed.”
Nashville, she recalled, wasn’t sure how to deal with her; but she never, ever felt snubbed. “The first time I came to town after Pieces Of The Sky was doing well, the community embraced me,” Harris said. “I think it was because of ‘If I Could Only Win Your Love.’ It was like, ‘God, here’s this old Louvin Brothers song and its got a mandolin solo. Remember mandolin?’ At that time it was like, ‘don’t put a mandolin on it. People might actually think it’s country music.’
“Musically, I think I’ve always managed to be kind of an outsider anywhere I would be. I’ve always managed to do whatever I wanted. I can live anywhere and do that.”
She wasn’t a star just yet, but something was in the air. “Before that album was released, she did a little show at UCLA Royce Hall,” Leadon said. “She opened for the Earl Scruggs Revue, which was really cool.
“Emmy’s band was just me and Herb Pedersen and her. So we did it all acoustic, and three–part harmonies. Herb Pedersen just has this unbelievable voice. It’s inspiring to open your mouth and sing with two voices like that.”
Leadon remembered that “Boulder To Birmingham” was everybody’s favorite song at the time. “The context here is she had no validation from sales. She had none. She had been out singing harmony with Gram, but that wasn’t her thing. And that wasn’t a particularly well–attended tour. She was a single mom from back East and she’d already been to Nashville and already been rejected. She had already moved back to D.C. to be a mom and here she’d gotten hooked up with this country–rock crazy man, on this Rolling Thunder–type tour that they did. And then she met Brian, this real sort of stable–type, even keeled Canadian guy and she met Eddie Tickner, who also is very even–keeled, through Gram.”
Today, Harris looks back with fondness at the woman who made Pieces Of The Skyso many years ago. “I think it was a really honest record,” she said. “And I think it was the beginning of me learning how to be a recording artist. I was so fortunate to be able to work with the musicians I worked with, and with Brain Ahern, who has enormous respect for the instincts of an artist.
“Because I was afraid to say anything, at first. In fact, I remember in particular we were cutting ‘Sleepless Nights.’ And about seven or eight takes into cutting it; somebody in the band suggested a chord change. And I’m sure it wouldn’t mean anything to anybody, but for about the next 10 takes I bit my lip and I sang and I just didn’t like it. And finally, I very sheepishly piped up. I raised my hand and said, ‘you know, I don’t…I…I…I’d rather go back to the way it was.’ Everybody just said, ‘why didn’t you say anything earlier?’ Everybody was so cool about it. And we ended up taking one of those takes that had the chord change in it that I didn’t like and we meticulously went back in and just for four bars, we overdubbed the old chord.
“And that taught me a lesson, that it was not only okay, it was encouraged for me to give my ideas. And with Brian at the helm, I always knew that my ideas would be considered, and if they were good, he would use them. And if they weren’t going to work for another reason, he would tell me. But I always thought that he respected and encouraged my ideas. And I really started the learning process of making records with Pieces Of The Sky, so it was a really important record for me.
“And also because it was successful, it gave me the carte blanche to do whatever I wanted for the rest of my career. And I’m still enjoying that because I also happened to be with a record company that supported and nurtured that kind of artist. They wanted you, especially if you had just a minimum of commercial success, they said, ‘Well, she must know what she’s doing; leave her alone.’ I’ve had that for over 20 years.”
Some Like It Hot
The success of Pieces Of The Sky gave them all a buzz; sessions for Harris’ second Reprise album began almost immediately and she started a touring schedule that would go on, virtually without stop, for seven years.
Harris was convinced to fire Guidera and Pendleton in favor of a top–flight touring group; someone at Warner Brothers had persuaded her to “go out and get a really hot band.” To her surprise, both James Burton and Glen D. Hardin accepted, with the proviso that they’d work around Elvis’ increasingly infrequent live appearances. Emory Gordy signed on full time as bass player, Hank DeVito took the pedal steel chair, and the elected drummer was John Ware, formerly with Michael Nesmith’s First National Band. Harris had to pay their hefty pro salaries out of her own pocket, but decided it was well worth it. She dubbed them the Hot Band.
“Serendipity, I suppose, is the only way to describe it,” Harris reflected. “And Gram has to take a lot of the credit for that. Because half that band – Emery, Glen D. and James – that was the band that he put together to record his album.”
Fate still had to play one more card in this latest hand with Emmylou Harris. “Brian brought me up to Toronto to listen to tapes of songs,” she said. “We listened all day long, eight hours, to stuff that had completely left me cold. We started laughing about it after awhile; we got kind of silly.”
Ahern who also owned a publishing company, had stacks of cassettes lying around his office in Toronto. “He said, ‘here’s a tape of somebody that I just signed; I signed him on the strength of a recommendation of a friend, and I haven’t even heard him yet. You want to hear him?”
“So he puts on this tape,” Harris continued, “and I hear Rodney Crowell. And I said, ‘Okay. Now we’re getting somewhere. This guy is great. This guy has obviously listened to George Jones.’ It was ‘Song For The Life’ and ‘Bluebird Wine,’ those two songs.”
A 22–year old vagabond from Houston, Crowell had no prospects at the time and welcomed the call from Ahern. “I went to Toronto and Brian and I flew down to Washington D.C. and I think Emmy was playing at a club with her Angel Band,” Crowell recalled. “After the gig, we stayed up all night somewhere in D.C. and played songs till daylight.
“It was pretty much cemented there. I was into all this old music, like the Louvin Brothers, and she was too. It was a little bit of the archivist thing. It was musicology all night. Country musicology. I think Gram Parsons might’ve been her entrée into it, and I think we clicked so heavily because I came from Texas and I grew up on that stuff.”
Crowell’s punchy, darkly ironic songwriting reminded Brian Ahern of Parsons; therefore, he thought, the kid might be just right for Emmylou.
“I had a show to do, and they flew Rodney in,” said Harris. “And he actually sat in with me and we did some songs. That day, he said, ‘I’ve just written this,’ and he played me ‘Till I Gain Control Again.’ And it’s been like that ever since. Rodney will say, ‘Oh, I just wrote this’ and he’ll play me ‘Leaving Louisiana In The Broad Daylight.’”
Harris recorded Crowell’s “Bluebird Wine” for Pieces Of The Sky. When Crowell saw her with the Angel Band at the Armadillo World Headquarters in Austin, she and Eddie Tickner has a surprise waiting for him backstage: a plane ticket to Los Angeles.
“I didn’t know what was going on. I just went,” Crowell remembered. “And when I got there, I learned that management was going to dissolve the Angel Band and form another band, which I was the first member of, this Hot Band thing.”
Crowell was enlisted for rhythm guitar, harmony vocals and, truth be told, because he was a good guy that Harris and Ahern liked having around. And with Rodney close at hand, they always got first crack at his songs.
“I was lucky to have Rodney Crowell all to myself for a couple of years,” Harris said. “He was writing all the time. And we sat and sang all the time. We were always singing.”
For Crowell, “It wasn’t my level as a musician, or even a singer, that earned me that place. I think my songwriting certainly earned me a place there, but I think it was more that I was an extension of Emmylou’s creativity at that time. So I collaborated with her on songs, and just on, ‘this is what it is. This is what’s cool about this music.’ So it was a good place to be. I was quite innocent.”
Harris cut “Till I Gain Control Again” for her next album, Elite Hotel, released in the first month of 1976. And Crowell helped her polish off “Amarillo,” a song she had started writing but was unable to finish. “Everything was just instinct then,” Crowell said. “You know, there’s a lot to be said for innocence. Innocence is a good thing, you can get a lot done.”
Several of the songs on Elite Hotel had been originally recorded for Pieces Of The Sky; including the Beatles’ “Here, There and Everywhere.” Still, the album (originally to be called Wheels) had a tougher, edgier feel than its predecessor. For starters, there were more fast songs, beer–swelling raveups like “Feelin’ Single, Seein’ Double,” Hank Williams’s “Jambalaya” and “Amarillo.”
Parsons figured in the equation via Harris covers of “Sin City,” “Ooh Las Vegas” and “Wheels.” She covered vintage country territory, in the form of the heartbreak classics “Together Again” and “Sweet Dreams.” It was true to her vision, an eclectic mix. As on Pieces Of The Sky, the arrangements and production were flawless. Vocally, however, Harris was a waif no longer. She was dropping the wounded–bird thing that she’d worn so convincingly on the first album, and on such songs as “Amarillo” and “Ooh Las Vegas” she even managed to sound worldly–wise.
The recording sessions for Elite Hotel, noted Herb Pedersen, who sang on more than half the album, were done with an agenda. “It was essentially the same type of focus and essentially the same direction,” he said, “but we knew at that point that there was something very good happening. I was a real studio ape at that point, doing a lot of sessions, and I would go up there and it was as professional as anything I’d ever involved myself with.”
The Enactron Truck was the place to be. “They were making great records,” Pederson said. “And it was very hip, as far as the country scene was concerned, as far as Nashville. We were making great country records in L.A; we weren’t thumbing our noses at Nashville. It was, ‘Yeah, we can do this too, because we have great musicians out here as well.’ Nashville isn’t the only place that you need to do country music. You can do it anywhere if you’ve got the players.”
“Sweet Dreams” was included in a version recorded live at Los Angeles’s Roxy Theatre. Ahern, ever the perfectionist, dubbed a Bernie Leadon guitar part, cut in the truck, onto the track.
The newly–christened Hot Band took to the open road, with Crowell and Harris singing harmony in best Charlie and Ira/Gram and Emmylou fashion. They opened two Elton John concerts in Dodger Stadium. “Musically,” said Crowell, “it was great. We would go from Conway Twitty to Elton John to James Taylor. It’s a lot more separated now. We were getting into some good places. It was fun, playing really strange gigs.”
Each concert’s showstopper was a killer version of the Miracles’ “Shop Around,” which never found its way onto an Emmylou Harris album. Crowell, the young pup of the group, recalled these as his rough and rowdy days. “We played the gig and went lookin’ for trouble,” he said.
James Burton’s flashy guitar work was also a highlight of each night’s show (some people doubtless attended the concerts to hear him, not Harris). After about nine months in the Hot Band, though, Burton’s conflicting dates with Elvis became a problem. In the end, Crowell recalled with a chuckle,”James went with Elvis, and Glen D. went with us. Glen D. liked us better.”
The Hot Band was actually booked to play in Memphis, August 16, 1977, the day Elvis never came out of the bathroom. “We flew in; we were playing that night,” remembered Crowell. “Glen D was with us and we were besieged by the media when he came in.”
Burton’s replacement on lead guitar was frizzy–haired Englishman Albert Lee, whose fiery and immaculately picked fretwork was to give Harris’ music yet another dynamic. A friend of Emory Gordy’s, Lee first appeared on the third Harris album, 1977′s Luxury Liner.
Elite Hotel won the 1976 Grammy for Best Country Vocal Performance, Female.
As her reputation spread, Emmy began to get calls to sing harmony on other artists’ sessions. In 1975, she’d recorded “Star Of Bethlehem” with Neil Young, who returned the favor by adding his own voice to Harris’ Christmas single, “Light Of The Stable” released that year. (“That’s my favorite thing about ‘Light Of The Stable,” said Harris. “He sounds like a choirboy, doesn’t he? He has wings when he sings that.”)
She harmonized on Old No. 1 and Texas Cookin’, the first recorded works by Texas singer/songwriter Guy Clark, whose wife Susanna, a songwriter and painter, became one of Harris’s closest friends. She sang on “Evangeline” with the Band (and appeared in a “fantasy sequence” built around the tune in The Last Waltz).
Her most high–profile session work to date came just before Elite Hotel. To her astonishment, Bob Dylan came calling for another voice to add to his Desire project, released in the spring of 1976. His producer Don DeVito, was a friend of Mary Martin’s.
Harris wound up singing on several tracks including “Mozambique,” “One More Cup Of Coffee” and a last–minute inclusion, the 11–minute gangland dirge “Joey.” Several tracks were released years later, on Dylan compilations.
She still shakes her head when she talks about her whirlwind Desire sessions. “There was no time to be nervous with Dylan,” she said. “You sit next to him, you’re reading the words off the page that he’s looking at, you’re trying to watch his mouth and watch the words at the same time, and it was one take, or two takes. So there was no time to be nervous; you just had to keep up with him.”
Easy From Now On
Harris and Ahern recorded 19 tracks for Luxury Liner that summer; in the end, they included 10. These ranged from Parsons’ scrappy little title track (he’d written and recorded it with his mid–’60′s International Submarine Band) to the Carter Family classic “Hello Stranger,” as traditional–sounding an Appalachian folk song as anything she’d committed to wax, with Nicolette Larson and Harris trading lines a la Sara and Maybelle Carter.
Harris was listening to a lot of rock ‘n’ roll oldies on the road; she and the Hot Band nailed down a fun rendition of Chuck Berry’s “C’est La Vie (You Never Can Tell)” for the album. Crowell and Lee sang backup on Townes Van Zandt’s haunting “Poncho and Lefty.” The Louvin Brothers were represented by an angelic reading of “When I Stop Dreaming” with harmony vocals by Emmy’s new friend Dolly Parton.
Harris cut her “Coat Of Many Colors” for Pieces Of The Sky, and Parton returned the favor with a version of “Boulder To Birmingham” on her album All I Can Do. During a listening party for that album, Harris was devastated by Parton’s song “To Daddy,” a heart–wrenching tale of a family torn apart from the inside out. Parton’s version stayed in the can, but Harris recorded it immediately, and it became a hit from her Quarter Moon In A Ten Cent Town album.
Released in January 1977, the same month she and Ahern married up in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Luxury Liner was something of a high–water mark for Harris. With its disparate song selection, it mirrored the earlier albums enough to keep her growing legion of fans in the red. For the first time, however, there were few session guys. Forged into a smoking, cohesive unit by the constant road work, the Hot Band was playing behind Harris as closely as her harmonies had mirrored Gram Parsons when they took off – an Albert Lee guitar solo here, a Glen D. Hardin honky–tonk piano flourish there – you couldn’t see the cars for the smoke along the track. The Hot Band more than lived up to its name.
Still, some critics carped that Harris and Ahern were starting to turn out cookie–cutter albums. “I agree that there was something of a formula, but in the best possible sense of the word,” Harris said. “Because it was rather open–ended. What Brian and I started with those musicians and our working relationship, reached a real zenith on Luxury Liner, at least up until Wrecking Ball, were my core songs. In every show I did ‘Hello Stranger’ and ‘Luxury Liner.’ I still do ‘Pancho And Lefty’ and ‘Making Believe.’ I’m about to work up ‘Tulsa Queen.’ Those songs became real benchmarks of material and playing, and the kind of sound that I’m associated with.”
Crowell quit the Hot Band in 1978 to make his first solo album, Ain’t Living Long Like This, produced by Ahern and recorded in the Enactron Truck (Lee followed suit a year later and made Hiding, with Ahern at the helm. Harris sang on both records).
Crowell had hooked up with Johnny Cash’s daughter Rosanne, who was at that time living in Europe. Although he appeared on Harris’ next two records, his mind was elsewhere. “I left Emmy’s band in September 1978 to get a band together and go out and support my record,” Crowell recalled. “But when my record came out, I was in Germany with Rosanne for six weeks. And then I came back and went, ‘What? I missed something here.’”
Quarter Moon In A Ten Cent Town took its title from “Easy From Now On,” the opening song, which was given to Harris by its writers Susanna Clark and Carlene Carter. Clark also provided the album’s evocative cover painting (the same year, her oil work graced the jacket of Willie Nelson’s Stardust).
“To Daddy” went to #3, and “Two More Bottles Of Wine” (the Delbert McClinton song, recorded for Luxury Liner but left off) became Harris’ third country #1. Still, the artist today has few kind words for Quarter Moon In A Ten Cent Town.
“I have some bad memories of that record, because we mixed it and mixed it and mixed it, it was mainly my fault,” Harris explained. “I kept thinking I wanted to hear a certain sound, and I was responsible for, I think, over–mixing that record. When we went back and listened to the rough mixes that we had, there was something happening with that record that didn’t ever get out, that people never heard. On the upside, it had a kind of a distant sound to it. A distant feel that works for the record. But I just remember long, unnecessary hours in the studio. Brian, in his wisdom, let me learn a lesson. There’s a certain point where you have to say, ‘This song is done; let’s move on.’ I had to learn it the hard way, by maybe over–mixing. Maybe every artist goes through that.”
“That painting is my favorite part of the record.” Harris said.
For the first time, Harris recorded no Gram Parsons songs. Instead, Quarter Moonincluded two by the Canadian scribe Jesse Winchester (“My Songbird” and “Defying Gravity”). She continued to mine the rich vein of Rodney Crowell’s songwriting, with his epics, “Leaving Louisiana In The Broad Daylight” and “I Ain’t Living Long Like This.” Willie Nelson added a duet vocal to Walter Martin Cowart’s “One Paper Kid,” and the Utah Phillips chestnut “Green Rolling Hills” featured harmonies from Fayssoux Starling and from young Ricky Skaggs, who was soon to replace Rodney Crowell as Emmy’s singing partner.
Crowell left, but never really went away. He and Harris had formed a bond – he says they were “instant family” – and had all through the ’80′s, when his own career was flying high, he continued to play with her when their scheduled allowed.
And he always gave her songs. “I did this version of ‘Till I Gain Control Again’ with Willie Nelson that was never released, and it was real good,” Crowell said. “But other than that, I think Emmylou’s version of ‘Til I Gain Control Again’ is still the definitive version. Crystal Gayle had the big hit with it, but I don’t think her version was as soulful as Emmy’s.
“Emmy’s version of ‘Leaving Louisiana In The Broad Daylight’ is pretty interesting. But you know what? Value judgments don’t serve. Like I don’t necessarily think my own versions of my songs are any better than anybody else’s might be. It’s all subjective. That’s not to say I haven’t made a lot of money on versions of my songs that gagged me. But never Emmylou’s.”
Crowell said he’d learned early on that he couldn’t fool her. “I wrote a song specifically for Emmy, and I took it to her,” he remembered. “And I said, ‘Hey Emmy, I wrote this song for you, okay?’ And she goes, ‘That’s good. But I heard this tape of this song “You’re Supposed To Be Feeling Good,” and I want to record that.’ And I went, ‘Oh, okay.’”
“The few times that I’ve done that, to write something for somebody; it don’t work. You just gotta write it ’cause it’s there. That’s making up songs, as opposed to capturing them. The better songs come from somewhere else; that’s an intellectual process, as opposed to an emotional thing.”
Crowell’s “Even Cowgirls Get The Blues” became a standout track on Blue Kentucky Girl, Harris’s fifth album, in the summer of 1979. Although there were one or two old pop songs (“Save The Last Dance For Me,” the first single, was a Top Five country hit)Blue Kentucky Girl had a more acoustic, pure country atmosphere. Alongside Willie Nelson’s playful “Sister’s Coming Home” (the album’s token electric rave up) and Leon Payne’s “They’ll Never Take His Love From Me” (a song long associated with Hank Williams), Harris cut Jean Ritchie’s aching “Sorrow In The Wind” and the Louvins’ “Everytime You Leave.” Parsons’ most haunting melody, “Hickory Wind,” was included too, and Harris’ singing had never been so bittersweet.
Blue Kentucky Girl won Harris her second Grammy, for Best Country Vocal Performance, Female. Harris explained why it was an ironic designation. “We got to the time to do Blue Kentucky Girl, and I think that was a reaction on my part to things that were coming out in the press that were saying, ‘The only reason you’re successful as a country artist is because you really don’t make country records.’ And I took umbrage at that! Because I wanted to do country records the way I wanted to do them. But this idea of, ‘Well, if you didn’t have a Beatles song on this record, it would’ve never had the enormous audience that it had…’ and all this stuff, and I thought okay, I’ll take up that gauntlet.
“So we decided to do Blue Kentucky Girl, which was still different from what you’d consider a traditional country record, but very much, in the song selection, very traditional. We still managed to put the Gram Parsons song in there, and the Willie Nelson song, showing that traditional country songs could hold their own in a contemporary setting.”
She hit #1 on the country singles chart for the fourth time with Dallas Frazier’s “Beneath Still Waters,” and the album’s title track made it to #6.
“Oddly enough, that record initially was a failure,” Harris said. “The record company didn’t know how to promote it. Until it won the Grammy, it had been written off. No one got it; they said, ‘This is just like all your other records.’
“So then we said, all right, we’ll go back even further and we’ll do a bluegrass record. Which is where Roses In The Snow came in.”
Released the next spring, Roses In The Snow turned the clock back even before the time of Hank Williams and George Jones. Its 10 songs were all acoustic–some were bluegrass, and some were traditional Appalachian sacred melodies, adapted by Ahern. There were no drums. The emphasis was on musicianship and vocal harmony. The former came in the form of Hot Band members past and present, with guest spots from the likes of acoustic guitar master Tony Rice and dobro player Jerry Douglas; the latter from Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt, Johnny Cash, the White Sisters (Sharon Hicks and Cheryl Warren) and the by–now–indispensable Ricky Skaggs (who would later marry Sharon Hicks).
The songs were from the catalogs of the Carter Family, the Stanley Brothers and the Louvins (Harris included Paul Simon’s “The Boxer,” too, a staple of her folk sets back in D.C.). At the dawn of the Urban Cowboy era, when country and pop were about to reach their crossover zenith, Emmylou Harris not only dug down to country’s roots, she also foreshadowed the new–traditionalist movement that would follow in the mid– ’80s. Roses In The Snow was almost too timely.
And it almost didn’t happen at all. “Halfway through the making of it, I got panicky,” Harris explained. “I was going through eclectic withdrawal! I felt like, I don’t know if I can make this record without striking something on there that is left–field. And Brian sat me down and said, ‘Look, it’s really important that we stick to our guns on this and make a record that is pure in its style.’
“I wanted to put ‘How High The Moon’ on it. We’d cut ‘Millworker’ at the same time, and he said, ‘If they didn’t get Blue Kentucky Girl…it’s really important that we keep the song selection pure.’ The only left–field thing that he allowed me on the record was Willie Nelson’s solo on ‘Green Pastures.’ Which is still one of my favorite guitar solos, of anything. And it’s on Roses In The Snow.”
On Roses In The Snow, Skaggs’ presence is felt at every step. His high mountain tenor blends perfectly with Emmy’s soprano, and he performs on mandolin, guitar, fiddle and banjo. It was through Skaggs’ bluegrass connections that Tony Rice would up playing on the album, too (the two subsequently made a duet record for Sugar Hill).
“He certainly solidified my love for bluegrass,” Harris said of Skaggs. “I had been doing bluegrass and acoustic songs all the way through. There were things on all the records up until Ricky came into the band that I had been doing. We even did a little bluegrass segment in the show before Ricky came: Emory, Albert, Rodney and I would do a little acoustic portion of the show, with things like ‘Angels Rejoiced In Heaven Tonight’ and ‘Satan’s Jewel Crown,’ things that we hadn’t even recorded. We used them to warm up, because Emory has a great love of bluegrass.
“When Ricky came into the band, he came from serious bluegrass roots, from the time he was five years old he’d been playing mandolin and singing, and then moved on to the fiddle. So then it sort of shifted into a higher gear. I think it was Ricky’s being in the band that moved us in the direction of doing Roses In The Snow. Certainly his input was very important.
“But I also think that myself and Brian’s involvement with Ricky gave him something, a way of making records, of putting all that bluegrass knowledge, and shifting him into another gear. So it was very mutually beneficial.”
Roses In The Snow became Harris’ sixth consecutive gold album, and it earned her the Country Music Association’s Best Female Vocalist award. Her mind, however was somewhere else: Although she continued well into her pregnancy (check her out in Willie Nelson’s movie Honeysuckle Rose), Harris had to take some time off when her second daughter, Meghann, was born in September 1979.
“I recorded three albums during my pregnancy. We recorded Roses In The Snow, Blue Kentucky Girl and Light Of The Stable all at the same time,” Harris said. “And part of Evangeline, actually. I was too pregnant to go on the road, so I went into the studio.”
Light Of The Stable appeared in time for the 1980 holiday season. It included her Christmas single from 1975, a new Rodney Crowell song and eight Yuletide standards and mountain hymns cut in the same lovingly unplugged style as Roses.
The album, said Harris, is “The best–kept secret in the music business! It comes out every year, and nobody even knows I have a Christmas album out.
“I like that record; I don’t think very many people do acoustic Christmas albums. But those songs really lend themselves to acoustic arrangements and instrumentation.”
Glen D. Hardin left the touring band around this time; he was briefly replaced by Tony Brown, another former Elvis sideman (and the future president of MCA Nashville). Gordy, DeVito and Brown departed the Hot Band in 1980 to play with Rodney Crowell’s Cherry Bombs, formed to work the road in support of Crowell’s second album, But What Will The Neighbors Think?
The two–record soundtrack to the film Roadie was issued that summer, and while the film died a quick (and merciful) death, the music enjoyed relative success. In particular, “That Lovin’ You Feelin’ Again,” a duet by Roy Orbison and Emmylou Harris, went to #6. “I was a little nervous about working with Roy Orbison,” Harris recalled. “Because there are just a few people that are larger than life, and he was one.
“But you know, what’s great about singing and music is once you’re actually doing it, you’re not thinking abut the fact that you’re singing with Roy Orbison, you’re just singing. And you’re carried away by the song, and by what you’re doing. I suppose Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers felt that way. I seem to have an innate ability to follow people. Duet singing is something I don’t think about. I just jump in. You just do it, and you’re carried away by it, and it’s kind of a transcendent experience.” She and Orbison shared the 1980 Grammy for Best Country Performance, Duo or Group.
In February 1981, Evangeline was released (the title track, the Band song by Robbie Robertson, featured Parton and Ronstadt on harmony vocals). Including mostly leftovers from the previous records, Evangeline was a hodgepodge of ideas that didn’t really gel, a critical disappointment, and it sluggishly became Harris’ final gold album.
Three years earlier, Harris, Parton and Ronstadt had attempted to make an entire album together (their provisional moniker was “The Queenston Trio”). Scheduling and other difficulties had killed the project (they finally got it together in 1987).Evangeline included a version of the Chordettes’ sprightly “Mister Sandman,” produced by Ahern for the abandoned trio album. Released as a single (with Harris’ re–recorded vocals replacing those of Parton and Ronstadt, for legal reasons), “Mister Sandman” reached #10.
For Harris, things started feeling like a treadmill. The Hot Band had been diluted from the hard–hitting ensemble she’d started out with, and her records were suddenly not selling the way they had been. She started to fear artistic stagnation.
At that moment, Ricky Skaggs left for a solo career. “I think it was time for Ricky to go on and do something else,” Harris said. “I think our styles diverged because Ricky is more into things being very specific: ‘This is the way a song should go, it should be sung like this,’ and you don’t vary from it; whereas for me, I’m more comfortable with leaving things a little more open–ended.
“Whereas for a while it was very creative and very good for both of us, I think it was time for us to go on to different paths, and take what we’d learned from each other.”
Barry Tashian, a New Englander who’d met Harris while she was singing with Parsons, had sung on three Evangeline tracks. A guitarist and songwriter, Tashian had fronted a Boston rock band, the Remains, when he was 21; that group’s claim to fame was an opening act on the Beatles’ final tour, in 1966.
Almost out of nowhere, Emmylou called him in the spring of 1980. “She said, ‘Ricky’s gone off on his own and I need somebody to sing and play rhythm guitar,’” recalled Tashian. “The only thing I’m going to ask you to do is play a little banjo, and sing higher than you’re used to singing.’ That’s what she said.
“It was hard at first, because I’m naturally a baritone. But I learned to stretch my range so eventually it became a little easier.” He played his first Hot Band show on the Fourth of July. By then, only drummer John Ware remained from the original lineup (he would resign in 1982). Lead guitarist Frank Reckard had taken Albert Lee’s spot.
There were other, more significant changes on the horizon.Emmylou’s’ marriage to Brian Ahern, who’d stepped into the Svengali shoes when Parsons died, was unraveling. Although they made three more albums together, and added a half–dozen more hit singles to the canon, the spark was pretty much gone.
It’s evident on 1981′s Cimarron, which yielded three hits (Townes Van Zandt’s “If I Needed You,” sung as a duet with Don Williams, Paul Kennerley’s “Born To Run” and the Karen Brooks/Hank DeVito tune “Tennessee Rose,” featuring the White Sisters) but had an overall flat, uninspired sound. “At that point,” said Harris, “Brian and I were coming to the end of our…I know it wasn’t our last record, but I think that we had maybe maxed out. We were starting to max out on our ability to be able to work together. I like a lot of the songs on Cimarron.”
Harris had another #1 with a vocal version of Floyd Cramer’s “Last Date,” which became the title song of the live Hot Band album, released in late 1982. Ahern turned the fabled Enactron Truck into a truly mobile console and recorded the group (the credits do not specify where) performing a good chunk of their live show at that time, which included Parsons’s “Grievous Angel,” Hank Snow’s “I’m Movin’ On” and Neil Young’s “Long May You Run.” Harris herself played the Bob Morris lead guitar part on the Buck Owens chestnut “Buckaroo.”
Ahern and Harris’ own last date was 1983′s White Shoes, which ranged farther afield than ever before with covers of the Donna Summer hit “On The Radio,” “Pledging My Love” (a 1955 Johnny Ace smash) and even “Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend.” Both “Pledging My Love” and “In My Dreams” (written by Paul Kennerley) reached #9 on the country singles chart, although the album was Harris’ third consecutive release to miss gold status. “In My Dreams” won her her fourth Grammy. Critics called White Shoes her rock album.
Remarked Harris: “There were certainly some rock things on there, but the high point on that record, for me, was the Sandy Denny song called ‘Old Fashioned Waltz.’ Which I think is worth the price of the record.”
Before White Shoes had even hit the marketplace, Harris dropped the ax. With Hallie and Meghann in tow (they were 13 and 4 respectively) she left the Enactron driveway for the last time and didn’t stop until she got to Nashville. And this time, she arrived a winner.
By Any Other Name
Englishman Paul Kennerley had relocated to Nashville to pitch his songs, after the moderate critical and commercial success of his two country music concept albums,White Mansions and The Legend of Jesse James. Harris had sung a major role on the latter, produced by Glen Johns and released in 1980 (the other lead players in Kennerley’s “country opera” were Johnny Cash, Levon Helm, Charlie Daniels and Albert Lee, and although they attempted to give the historically–based libretto some weight, it came off as little more than a poor-man’s Nashville imitation of Jesus Christ Superstar). But Kennerley came into Emmylou Harris’ life just as the road was turning and she was wondering where to go next.
On one of the Hot Band tours, Harris’ road manager had deterred a fan who thought she had recognized Harris in a bar. No, that’s not her, he’d said protectively; that girl’s name is Sally Rose. And these guys are her band, the Rosebuds.
It was a road pseudonym they often used – Sally was Emmy’s sister, and she’d check into the hotels under that name, and for a while the Hot Band would be introduced for their opening set as Sally Rose and the Rosebuds. After a while, Harris began to create a story for Sally Rose, using, like many fiction writers, easy parallels from her own life. A theme began to form in her mind. Musically, she began collaborating with Paul Kennerley, asking him to help her fill in the blanks.
“I had these songs that were stewing around,” Harris recalled. “And there was something that I wanted to say. I knew that I had to just put everything aside and just put the energy into writing that album.
“I had reached an impasse, a logjam if you will, creatively as an artist. For the most part, I am an interpreter of other people’s songs, and I’m very happy to do that. But when you do have something to say poetically, and in this case, it was more than one song…I had an idea for a story that was more than mildly autobiographical, but it went into a realm of something else. I became a project, something that I had conceived of and wanted to follow to its fruition.”
It was steel guitarist Hank DeVito who convinced a procrastinating Harris to thread all the songs together and make The Ballad Of Sally Rose a true concept album. “I kept putting it off, and I knew that I was just going to be treading water creatively, trying to come up with another record as good as the last record,” she remembered, “and that that was just not gonna happen until I did this.”
The Ballad Of Sally Rose hit the street in February 1985. The story of an impressionable young girl whose parents met near Mount Rushmore (“Through the valley of the shadow of Roosevelt’s nose”), the album follows Sally through her musical apprenticeship with The Singer, who takes her into his confidence, his band and his bed. Before long, they’re married, and Sally’s fame as a performer begins to overtake his. He’s a wild man with a deep love for honky–tonk music, but little regard for the feelings of those around him. When he begins to hit the skids and hit them hard, Sally takes off for brighter lights.
The Singer dies in a car wreck, never to know that a hopelessly lovesick Sally was on her way back. She dedicates herself to keeping his unique music alive any way she can.
The press pounced on the story’s similarity to that of Emmylou Harris and Gram Parsons (Harris at the time would coyly admit that autobiography was a large part of the inspiration). Although three singles were released, none made the Top 10, andThe Ballad Of Sally Rose became her first out–and–out flop.
Too bad all around, because several of the songs she and Kennerley crafted, especially the majestic “Woman Walk The Line” and the sinewy “Rhythm Guitar” would have been worthy additions to her book of sonic triumphs with Brian Ahern. She had learned how it was done.
“Having written with Paul Kennerley myself, I can only imagine how much fun she had doing all those songs,” said Barry Tashian, one of numerous past and present Hot Band members to play on the Sally Rose sessions. “Paul is such an inventive and talented craftsman, I can well imagine she learned a lot through that process. I remember her visiting them out at this little barn where Paul used to live, on Mel Tillis’ property. They just sat and pounded out all those songs.”
Sally Rose meant much more to Harris than a transfusion of new blood. It was a change, a journey into the unknown. “It was kind of frightening,” she said. “But also, I laws at the point where there were so many things I needed to change about my life and the thing that was pulling me toward the change, and the project that was sort of my crowbar, was Sally Rose. I came to Nashville with the idea of working on that record.”
Tashian remembers the Hot Band taking a longer–than–normal respite while Emmy and Paul were hammering out the songs and the story. “There was as break in the flow,” he explained, “and I think it started around August of the year she moved to Nashville. I think I was one of the first ones to move to Nashville, which could’ve been the reason I would up on that album when maybe some of the others didn’t.
“The transition, once it was accomplished, once the album was done, then the band kind of re–materialized. She brought the people together again. (In concert) we played the album from top to bottom, and things resumed pretty much after that.” The last holdout from the original Hot Band drummer John Ware, had departed the year before, and now Emmy had all new guys.
The Sally Rose live show (one set of the entire album, the second set consisting of Harris’ best–known songs) was a resounding critical success. And at the end of the tour Paul Kennerley became her third husband.
“There were a lot of changes happening,” said Harris. “It was a huge creative step for me. Quite scary, in a way.” She thinks of it as one of her best albums, and recommends it to her fans. “If they’re interested in what I do and in the left turns that I’ve taken, I really took a left turn with that one,” she said.
“After Sally Rose I did Angel Band and that was really good. And that was something that was not even a record; we just got together to really get the juices going again, and just sing without the idea of making a record. But it turned out so good that we ended up putting it out.”
One of the most unorthodox (and fascinating) albums in the Harris canon, Angel Bandconsists of acoustic renditions of traditional country gospel songs along the lines of “If I Be Lifted Up,” “We Shall Rise” and “Where Could I Go But To The Lord.” (The well–known spiritual “Angel Band” had given Harris the name of her first post–Parsons band.)
Produced by her longtime bassist Emory Gordy, Angel Band was little more than a simple harmony record, less complex even than Roses In The Snow, with Vince Gill adding the Ricky Skaggs tenor to Emmy’s soprano. It was a low–key affair, released with little fanfair. Allen Reynolds’s “Someday My Ship Will Sail” only got up to #60 on the singles chart.
Angel Band wasn’t released until 1987, by which time Harris had already put outThirteen, co–produced with Kennerley. “Thirteen is a record that probably suffered from me being really tired and exhausted from the afterbirth of Sally Rose,” she said. “Because I put so much effort into making that record, and then I toured myself into the ground, went way into debt…for all intents and purposes, I suppose, it was kind of a disaster. Except for me, artistically. Then I went in and I made Thirteen.”
Harris’ favorite song on Thirteen is Bruce Springsteen’s “My Father’s House.” It continued the fascination with Springsteen’s music that began with her version of “The Price You Pay” on Cimarron (later she included “Racing In The Street” on Last Date, and would go on to cover “Mansion On The Hill” and “Tougher Than The Rest” on subsequent albums.
“Oddly enough,” she explained, “it was the Nebraska album that Bruce Springsteen did that made me say, ‘All right. If I don’t put everything aside and finish the Sally Rose project, then I shouldn’t have my artistic license renewed.’ It was such an amazing record. The songs on Nebraska were so moving and so beautiful. It was such a brave record for him to make. He was this pop icon, this rock icon, and he made basically ‘Luke The Drifter 1980.’ He just did something that was so brave.
“But Nebraska is still my favorite Springsteen album. ‘My Father’s House’ is just an extraordinary song. Thirteen is worth it for me, just for ‘My Father’s House.’ But ultimately, maybe I should’ve waited before I had nine more like it.”
Harris stops short of branding Thirteen a failure. “On every record that I’ve made, I think there is something redeeming in it,” she said. “What you want is to have aWrecking Ball and have 11 things that stand as one redeeming thing, all together in one record.”
She rebounded from the album’s lack of success in a big way during 1987. Trio, the album she, Parton and Ronstadt had begun a decade earlier, was finally realized (George Massenburg produced) and became Harris’s first (and to date only) platinum album. It climbed all the way to #6 on Billboard’s pop albums chart.
“We started the Trio record in late ’77 and ‘Mister Sandman’ was one of the original things we cut for it. I was dragged kicking and screaming into that. I didn’t like the song, and I ended up with the hardest part. We called it the road–map part. What little melody there was, there was less of it on my harmony part.
“But over the years, I’ve come to at least learn to admire and respect that song, because of how difficult it is. It was like learning to speak Russian or something.” The Ahern–produced “Mister Sandman,” of course, had been issued in 1981 on Evangeline.
Harris, Parton and Ronstadt each sang on one another’s solo records in the intervening years. So why did Trio take so long to materialize? “We kind of lost our direction,” said Harris. “It kind of fell apart. I think we were a bit shy about getting back together again, because we didn’t want to have another aborted attempt.”
Herb Pedersen was called in as “Vocal Arranger” for Trio (John Starling was credited as “Musical Director”). “All three of them were pals, and they didn’t want to be the one to say, ‘You should sing this,’ or, ‘You should sing tenor, and I’ll sing the bass,’” Pedersen explained. “So I kind of came in and would listen to what the arrangement was, and then suggest, ‘Well, maybe Dolly should sing this part because it’s more in her range, and it won’t be such a strain for Linda, and Emmy can sing the baritone.’ It depended on the tune and the key.” When he arrived, Pedersen said, the tracking work was all done; his job was purely to fine–tune the harmonies.
“It took us a while to realize that instead of trying to make this great record to end all records, all we wanted to do was make a little acoustic record,” said Harris. “We weren’t trying to make this huge pop record. What we did best was sitting around singling very simple, melodic songs, with basically acoustic accompaniment. To really give Brian his due, who was initially supposed to produce the record, that was what he said to us. And we said, ‘No, no, we have to do this, and we have to do that!’ and we sort of self–destructed. The one we ended up making, if you listen, is really all acoustic. Except for maybe ‘Telling Me Lies.’”
“Telling Me Lies” was second of four singles from Trio; the others were “These Memories Of You,” “Wildflowers” and the old Phil Spector tune “To Know Him Is To Love Him.” All of them made the country top–ten (“To Know Him Is To Love Him” went to #1). Trio took the Grammy for Country Performance by a Duo or Group. Also nominated that year were the Angel Band album and “You Are,” a single Harris made with Glen Campbell.
Harris’ version of “Back In Baby’s Arms,” from the John Hughes film Planes, Trains And Automobiles was released as a single in December, 1987, and she hit the top spot for the last time to date in the summer of 1987 with “We Believe In Happy Endings,” a duet with Earl Thomas Conley on RCA.
“We Believe In Happy Endings” was issued on Duets, released by Warner/Reprise in 1990. This invaluable album collected some of Harris’ finest one–offs, including “Wild Montana Skies” with John Denver (a top 20 hit in 1983), “That Lovin’ You Feelin’ Again” with Roy Orbison, “Evangeline” with the Band and “A Thing About You,” a Tom Petty song she’d recorded with the group Southern Pacific.
Among the other gems on Duets: “If I Needed You” with Don Williams, “Star Of Bethlehem” with Neil Young, and “Love Hurts,” the Grievous Angel version, with Gram Parsons.
She released an album in 1988, Bluebird, that placed two singles in the Top 20 (“Heartbreak Hill,” written by Harris and Kennerley, and “Heaven Only Knows,” a solo Kennerley composition). Co–produced by Harris and guitarist Richard Bennett, Bluebird was a nice, safe, wake–me–when–it’s–over record. She was treading water.
Its follow–up, 1990′s Brand New Dance, had a little more muscle (and some lovely songs) but really wasn’t a quantum improvement (the production chores were handled by Bennett and Alan Reynolds, the same team who produced some of Nashville’s more broadly commercial acts). “I got the chance to work with Mary Black and Dolores Keane on Brand New Dance,” Harris said. “And that was a good experience, because they’re two of my favorite singers. We did Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Tougher Than The Rest.’ That might be my favorite thing on that record.”
A New Beginning
Harris’s storybook marriage to Paul Kennerley ended in January 1992. By then she had accepted a position as president of the Country Music Foundation, Nashville’s historic archive and country music library. It was essentially a public relations gig; she made TV commercials for the CMF, hawking its reissue album series.
In 1992 Harris was inducted into the Grand Ole Opry. She’d been in Nashville a lot the previous year, working with the CMF, staying home to tend to 11–year old Meghann, and working through the separation from Kennerley. A serious bronchial infection convinced her that something else needed to go, too.
“It made me realize how hard it was to sing over the top of the electric instruments,” she recalled. “And I’d been doing it for 13 or 14 years. It made me come face to face with the fact that I was tired, and I was tired of doing the same thing, and there were no new worlds to conquer. The band played great every single night. It was nothing to do with their performance. It was mine.”
And so in late 1990, the legendary Hot Band ceased to exist. “She just called me up one day,” remembered Barry Tashian, “and said, ‘I’ve done this long enough, and I’m going to dissolve the band. I don’t know what’s going on with my voice.’ A couple months earlier though, I remember she’d had kind of a moody period, where she mentioned she wasn’t having much fun. So perhaps it had run its course.
“I remember the house sound man saying, ‘I’ve got to run Emmylou’s microphone all the way up.’ In other words, she wasn’t projecting very much. So she was having some problems there.”
Said Harris, “Sometimes I think these events happen to us that can initially be looked on as something that’s really bad, but they awaken us to something: You have to make a change. Scott Peck, in his book The Road Less Traveled, calls it re–writing your road map. Because you actually are a different person, and you’re in a different place, but you’re acting as if it was 10 years ago. And we all go through this, in personal things, our professional life, whatever.
“It’s very terrifying to make a change from something that is successful and that you can depend on. And you’re almost on automatic pilot. But that’s death. You have to sometimes just step into the unknown. And it’s easy now to talk about it, but at the point of making that change, it was pretty frightening.”
She assembled an all–new band, the Nash Ramblers; with Newgrass Revival founder Sam Bush on mandolin, fiddle and harmony. The other members of the five–piece outfit were acoustic bassist extraordinaire Roy Huskey Jr., singer and guitarist Jon Randall Stewart, drummer Larry Atamanuik and pedal steel whiz Al Perkins, who’d been a member of Stephen Stills’s Manassas many years before, the group that caused Chris Hillman to disband the Flying Burrito Brothers. What goes around comes around.
“I either needed to take some time off, or I needed to put together a completely different musical unit,” Harris explained. “And it was John Starling who encouraged me to put together an acoustic band.”
Emmylou Harris and the Nash Ramblers were recorded live in Nashville’s historic Auditorium, longtime home of the Grand Ole Opry, April 30–May 2, 1991, before a specially–invited audience of 350 each night. They played more than 20 songs each night, and 17 wound up on Emmylou Harris And The Nash Ramblers At The Ryman, produced by Reynolds and Bennett using the New York–based Record Plant’s remote truck.
True to form, she picked an eclectic bunch of tunes for the album and the accompanying TNN television special (released simultaneously as a Warner/Reprise home video). There was Eddy Arnold’s “Cattle Call,” Steve Earle’s “Guitar Town,” and Nanci Griffith’s “It’s A Hard Life Wherever You Go” and the old Dion hit “Abraham, Martin and John,” plus tunes by Bruce Springsteen, Creedence Clearwater Revival and Peter Rowan.
The Nash Ramblers also performed Bill Monroe’s “Get Up John,” and Monroe himself appeared on the Ryman stage each night to buck dance with Emmylou. “I didn’t know how my audiences, who had been coming very loyally to see me and the Hot Band for all those years, were going to respond,” she said. “I don’t know if I was going to lose any power, because I was used to being in front of a really high–powered bunch of musicians.
“And what I found to my delight, was that these guys were just as high–powered. They just did it with different instrumentation.”
At The Ryman won a Grammy in the by–now familiar “Duo or Group” category, and although it didn’t go gold, it certainly sold enough copies to qualify as a success; still, Harris and the new upper–levels at Warner Brothers could not see eye to eye, and in 1993 she left the company for Asylum Records, which had recently re–energized its Nashville division. Cowgirl’s Prayer, her 18th (not counting Gliding Bird or the two best–ofs issued during her long tenure with Warner) appeared in September. Again, Reynolds and Bennett produced, and members of the Nash Ramblers played on several cuts.
Harris seemed to be searching for direction again. Mining familiar ground, she cut an old country standard (Eddy Arnold’s “You Don’t Know Me”), a tune from an up–and–coming songwriter (Lucinda Williams’s Cajun–flavored “Crescent City”), a Jesse Winchester song, a Leonard Cohen song and a collaboration with country folkie Kieran Kane. She even muttered through David Olney’s bizarre spoken–word parable “Jerusalem Tomorrow,” the story of a snake–oil salesman who takes a job with Jesus Christ. With a clarinet solo in the bridge, no less.
Perhaps the most galvanizing song on Cowgirl’s Prayer was one Harris wrote all by herself. She cadged the chord progression for “Prayer In Open D” from “Norfolk,” a tune she’d penned back in her D.C. clubbing days. The story of a search for peace (“I can find no bridge for me to cross, no way to bring back what is lost”), it seemed possibly connected by some emotional thread to her recent divorce. Her voice, deeper now conveyed both heartbreak and hopefulness along with a certain resignation that had never been there before.
“Prayer In Open D” (played, naturally, in open D guitar tuning) became one of the high points of Harris’s Nash Ramblers concerts. It was performed by Harris on guitar, accompanied by Sam Bush playing violin. “Most of my songs, I feel like I need people behind me,” she said. “Something like ‘Boulder To Birmingham,’ I would kind of miss the harmonies. It’s not so easy to play by myself. My abilities as a guitar player come glaring through.” Although she’d been playing guitar on her own records all the way back, she was always part of an ensemble, where she felt comfortable. “Whereas in an open tuning, I really get up past the third fret, and I can impress people.”
In early 1995, Harris embarked on a European tour with a re–united Hot Band (the roster included Rodney Crowell, Albert Lee, Glen D. Hardin and others from later incarnations of the group).
Upon her return, she began planning her 19th album (again, we’re not countingGliding Bird, because she doesn’t). Harris was now seen as a sort of spiritual godmother to contemporary country music (all the new singers, many 20 years younger, sang her praises) and although she remained as hauntingly beautiful as ever, with her almond eyes and model’s high cheekbones, her hair, which had been streaked with white since the ’70′s, was now completely that color. She moved gracefully into middle age.
Realizing that country radio wasn’t going to squeeze her in, whatever she recorded, Harris decided to take a giant step in a completely different direction. Instead of playing to an indifferent market, she would please herself. When Asylum Records president Kyle Lehning queried her as to which producer she’d like to work with, if she could choose anybody, she said Daniel Lanois.
Lanois had made his mark creating atmospheric, moody backgrounds for U2 and Peter Gabriel; he’d been at the helm of Bob Dylan’s acclaimed Oh Mercy, and his solo album Acadie was one of Harris’s recent favorites.
As always, the first task was choosing songs for the project. Harris brought in Lucinda Williams’s deceptively simple “Sweet Old World,” Dylan’s “Every Grain Of Sand” and Steve Earle’s “Goodbye” (she had guested on Earle’s comeback album, Train a–Comin’). Two Lanois compositions, “Where Will I Be” and “Blackhawk,” were added to the stash.
Lanois convinced Harris to record Jimi Hendrix’s “Waterfall (May This Be Love),” and she in turn overrode his doubts about “Goin’ Back To Harlan,” written by Anna McGarrigle, one of her favorite songwriters. She championed yet another newcomer (California songwriter Gillian Welch, who penned “Orphan Girl”). And she wrote yet another number with Rodney Crowell, “Waltz Across Texas.”
But the album, Wrecking Ball, was like nothing Emmylou Harris had ever done before. Every song pulsed with dark and primitive percussion, its background a wash of guitar and keyboard figures. True to Lanois’s trademark style, each song was stripped to its essence and re–introduced into a smoky atmosphere. At the forefront, always, was Emmylou’s voice, recorded hot and breathlessly close to the microphone, intimate and grave.
She admitted to a certain fearlessness in the studio. “If it was somebody that I trusted that wanted to do it, I would certainly give it a shot,” she said, “and if I felt that I could bring something to it…I have a pretty good barometer in me that tells me when I’m comfortable with something. And even something like ‘Where Will I Be,’ which even Daniel thought was really different for me, I knew it was different but I loved the song so much…as long as people give me a little bit of latitude to maybe change things a little bit, phrasing, and sometimes I inadvertently change melodies and I don’t realize I have, as long as they’re okay with that, then if I bring something to it that works, then I’m happy to do it.”
Neil Young, who’d written the otherworldly title song (Harris discovered it on hisFreedom album), sang harmony on it; likewise Williams and Earle played guitar on their own compositions. U2′s Larry Mullen Jr. was featured on drums and hand drums, and Lanois himself played a multitude of guitars and basses, and sang lead and harmony vocals.
Just before it came out, Harris told interviewers that Wrecking Ball was her “weird record.” “At that time I coined that phrase, I was in discussions with Kyle Lehning at Asylum,” she recalled, “talking about what record I was going to do next afterCowgirl’s Prayer. And I said, ‘Well, I’ve got this idea for a country record that I might collaborate with Rodney Crowell on. And then I’ve got this sort of weird record, because I had these songs that were not country songs, and were kind of eclectic. So when Kyle and I would talk, it was my way of identifying one project from the other. It came from a very innocent source. I wasn’t getting X Files on anybody, if you know what I mean.”
Harris said she was never worried that Wrecking Ball might be carrying things a little too far. “I’ve always been very eclectic, so the song selection was not a very big jump for me. Maybe doing a Jimi Hendrix song was, but that was Daniel. That was really a duet between the two of us. I don’t know if Daniel ever did, but I never had any second thoughts, ever.”
As for the thought that her faithful fans might be turned off by the new sounds: “I didn’t worry about it. I thought that that might happen, but I felt so strongly about what I was doing I felt if I alienated anybody, they probably weren’t my fan to begin with. Not in the long run.”
Released in September 1995, Wrecking Ball didn’t land any singles on the country charts and it missed gold–record status, but the album was #1 on Billboard’s “Americana” chart for several weeks. And in March, it won a Grammy Award (Harris’ seventh) as Best Folk Album. “I think that category showcased some records that deserved some recognition, but perhaps were not so easily categorizable,” she remarked. “I’m really referring to Steve Earle’s record, which was one of my favorite records from last year.”
A week before the album’s release, Harris had joined Earle and singer/songwriters Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt for a show at Nashville’s intimate Bluebird Café. The three Texas legends kept the crowd spellbound with their exquisitely crafted songs. Harris, who sang harmony with each of them, more than held her own with a solo reading of “Prayer In Open D.” In the first month of 1995, she brought Earle onto the Grand Ole Opry stage for the first time.
A class act all the way, Emmylou Harris remains, more than 20 years on, delightfully classless.
“It’s probably better for me that my success is not calculated by, ‘Oh, I had another huge hit,” she said. “Or by my sales. It’s calculated by an inner thing that I look for, and also getting that sense that my audience is responding, because I don’t go by record sales, or whatever. The critical acclaim is one thing, although you shouldn’t listen to them, I suppose. But more important, I think, it’s looking back and saying, ‘I like the songs on this record; I like what I did here.’
“The Ballad Of Sally Rose was not a commercial success. And it had mixed critical success. But I stand by that record. I know it has flaws, but I stand by the material. And the fact that I did it. Angel Band is a very little known record, yet I have people always coming up to me and saying how that record, you know, affected their lives. It’s things like that where you feel it was good that you did something.
“But ultimately, you want to just be excited about music. And I know that there were times when it was a struggle for me to be excited about making music, and I probably should’ve taken some time off. But I either didn’t have the courage to do that (I told myself it was for financial reasons, that I had to make an album and I had to do a tour) but ultimately, I think that that’s a copout.
“I think it’s scary to remove yourself from something that is very much wrapped up with your identity and who you are. And it’s very difficult to be quiet and still. That’s something that I’ve never done.”