Emmylou Harris is a singer-songwriter and accomplished musician. She is known for her straightforward singing style, sharp ear for a good melody, and ability to bring out previously unheard beauty in her renditions of other musicians' songs. Harris's signature style combines talented guitar playing and singing with an earnest musical style that blends classic country, folk and rock influences.
Harris, born in 1947 to a southern military family, has lived in various parts of the US. She was class valedictorian at her Virginia high school. Her father was missing in action for ten months during the Korean War, a family experience Harris describes in her song "The Ship on His Arm." Harris has remained close with her parents throughout her life, bringing her daughter to live with them after her brief marriage to songwriter Tom Slocum ended in 1969.
She moved to New York City in the late 1960s, where she waitressed while performing in Greenwich Village. She would go on to win 12 Grammy Awards over the next fifty years. A sought-after collaborator, Harris has worked with artists from Roy Orbison to Neil Young, Dolly Parton to Linda Rondstadt.
Emmylou Harris's career includes many deft covers of other artists' songs, such as Townes Van Zandt's "Pancho and Lefty," "(You Never Can Tell) C'est La Vie" by Chuck Berry, and "Mr. Sandman" by Pat Ballard, for which Harris was initially best-known. But a special relationship with a mentor expanded her confidence in her own songwriting abilities. Harris credits Gram Parsons with developing her as a musician and as a person: "I think you get to a certain point in your life where you do gaze back over the years and it's sort of a celebration or a thank-you for the fact that you cross paths with people who change you forever. Certainly Gram did that; I did come down walking in his shoes and trying to carry on for him. So I really just told that story the way I see it in my mind, the brief time we had and how I couldn't imagine that Gram wouldn't be around forever. Life goes on and unfolds before you, but those people and those events that change you forever are always with you. It was an important event that determined the trajectory of my life and, more than anything, of my work."
Gram Parsons' and Emmylou Harris's collaborative relationship was groundbreaking for Country music of the 1970s. Their work together added more variety, roots influence and old country feel to the genre. "Luxury Liner and She" by Gram Parsons became some of Emmylou Harris's earliest hits, on her 1977 album Luxury Liner. When Parsons passed away from a drug overdose in 1973, Harris had to adjust much of her way of life and music-making. Working past this tragedy, Harris chose to take up Parson's musical mantle. Her song "Boulder to Birmingham" is about the loss of Parsons as a friend and collaborator.
Harris is a devoted dog lover- she takes two dogs on the road with her when she tours. Her dog Bella is the namesake of Harris's song "Big Black Dog." Harris rescued Bella as a part of her Bonaparte's Retreat dog rescue, which she runs out of her home. She says of her canine love: "She goes on the tour bus with me now, along with another one of my rescues. I think of all the years on the road I wasted without a dog. They make it so much more pleasant. I'm making up for lost time now, that's for sure."
About her relationship with collaborator, friend and mentor Gram Parsons, Harris wrote "Boulder to Birmingham
." The goodbye track became one of her signature singles, and went on to be covered by Joan Baez. In it, Harris sings, "Well you really got me this time/ And the hardest part is knowing I'll survive." The song of loss resonated with many, and helped to cement Emmylou Harris's introduction to popular music as an American great.
In 1977 she married Brian Ahern, the Canadian producer who had worked with her on Pieces of the Sky album.
In her later life, Emmylou Harris has become known for aging with wise grace, in addition to her long musical career. She says: "We age; we don't have any choice. You might as well accept where you are in life. That doesn't mean there's a not a certain nostalgia for your youth; it's just part of the human condition. But it's easy for me because I have had such a wonderful life."
After releasing 1975's Pieces of the Sky Emmylou Harris was told by her record label to form a "hot band," and with tonge-in-cheek flair, she put together a group of musicians that she called The Hot Band.