Emmylou Harris

by Dan MacIntosh

A song has no greater friend than Emmylou Harris. Not surprisingly, she's drawn from the deep well of great country songwriters like Buck Owens ("Together Again"), Don Gibson ("Sweet Dreams") and Hank Snow ("I'm Movin' On"), but Harris has also lent her angelic voice to songs written by The Beatles ("Here, There and Everywhere"), Chuck Berry ("You Can Never Tell") and even Phil Spector ("To Know Him Is to Love Him").

Although she mainly sees herself as a discoverer and interpreter of other artists' songs, Harris' 2011 album Hard Bargain features 11 original compositions, including one about her early mentor, Gram Parsons, titled "The Road," and a musical ode to the late Kate McGarrigle called "Darlin' Kate."

Harris has gone where few country artists have ventured: she played the Lilith Fair and can be heard on the soundtracks to both Brokeback Mountain and O Brother, Where Art Thou?

A joke around Music City is that Willie Nelson has never met a duet partner he didn't like, and a similar statement could be made about Harris. And like Nelson, she leaves an impression. A sampling of what songwriters have told us when they get on the subject:

Emmylou Harris sang on it, and that was just a real, real thrill.
Radney Foster talking about "GodSpeed (Sweet Dreams)."

To have Emmylou Harris sing on it, there's the icing on the cake.
Randy Montana talking about "Last Horse."

When heavenly accompaniment is called for, Emmylou Harris is on the A-list.
Dan MacIntosh (Songfacts): You came to songwriting late in your career. Was there a pivotal event that drove you to write your own songs?

Emmylou Harris: Well, I've had several eras - periods of songwriting, I guess. In 1985 I wrote "The Ballad of Sally Rose." I had that idea for a long time, then Bruce Springsteen put out his Nebraska album [in 1982], and I was so inspired by the bravery of that record and the emotion of that record that I said, "I've really got to just do this project." Of course, then I didn't write for a long time after that.

Words like 'masterpiece' get thrown around when Emmylou Harris' Wrecking Ball gets mentioned. That's because this 1995 album, which was reissued again in 2014, matched Harris' pure singing voice with producer Daniel Lanois' atmospheric sonic approach to create something altogether beautiful and new. With it, Lanois proved he could bring the same supernatural mystique to country music that he'd already showcased on rock recordings by U2 and Peter Gabriel.

The result was an eclectic – and perhaps Harris' best – collection of songs. These selections include Steve Earle's post-drug abuse regrets of "Goodbye," Lucinda Williams' rant against suicide in "Sweet Old World," and the wonderful spiritual meditation of "Deeper Well," which Harris wrote along with Lanois and David Olney. Wrecking Ball is like entering a dream world that entices and satisfies, yet cannot be fully explained.
Wrecking Ball came out [Harris' 1995 album], and that was important for me and a real resurgence of energy and inspiration. It was actually two people, Daniel Lanois and Guy Clark, who told me that I should write my own stuff. So I took some time off and I did it, and I've been dabbling in it ever since.

But I still mainly think of myself as a song finder and a song interpreter. It's wonderful when you can write a song on your own, but I don't feel like I have to keep renewing that license, if you know what I mean. Although every once in a while I try to put some time into it. Like anything else, I think it's a muscle and you have to actually exercise it.

Songfacts: I once heard you say that Merle Haggard was the greatest country artist of all time. Do you still feel that way?

Harris: That's really hard, because I love Merle Haggard. And really, if you had to pick one artist to represent country music and send it into outer space to let people out there in other galaxies know what you mean by country music, I think you could drop a needle on anything that Merle has ever done and get a pretty good representation. There are so many other artists that I love. I'm a huge George Jones fan, Kitty Wells, Dolly Parton, Willie Nelson. The Louvin Brothers. You can go on and on about the greats of country music.

But as far as if you had to pick somebody to represent all in one, you've got everything there in Merle. You've got the great singer, you've got the great songwriter, you've got the great bandleader. And you've got someone who sings with a social conscience, but also speaks to the common everyday experience, like the way the poets see themselves. I don't know if I skirted the issue there, because I don't like to pick.

I think that he's been very creative, but he's never strayed out of the genre, ever. And yet he's managed to be incredibly creative over how many decades.

All For The Hall is a series of benefit concerts that take place in various major cities, including both Nashville and Los Angeles, which raise funds to support the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. This interactive museum has the mission of "teaching audiences about the enduring beauty and cultural importance of country music."

The museum has been in operation since 1967, and is located walking distance from the historic Ryman Auditorium. Visitors can watch vintage video clips, see exhibits that include stage wear from many country music icons, and participate in live performances and public programs. Although the original museum was initially on Music Row (Sixteenth Avenue and Division Street), the current structure reopened the museum on May 17, 2001.
Songfacts: You've been a longtime supporter of the Country Music Hall of Fame. Can you express why it's so important that we support that as a tradition?

Harris: Well, besides all those great artifacts and the wonderful programs they put on, like the Bakersfield thing that's going on now, it's just amazing, informative and entertaining and inspiring. When I was a young artist and even still to this day, I'm inspired by what came before me. The working library, the archive that they have - the museum is just the tip of iceberg. There's a video of Hank Williams on The Kate Smith Hour. I remember seeing it years ago. I mean, stuff like that is priceless.

And the instruments, and the care they take of everything. All the stuff that's donated by the artists. I still get excited by the costumes and the boots. I love seeing the lyrics written on napkins. It's inspiring. It really is. And I think it helps to move the music forward in the people who see it and are inspired by it. So it's a very important thing that we have for the history of our music and for the future of our music.

Songfacts: What are you excited for tonight?

Harris: Oh, actually, I'm singing with Heart. Or they're singing with me.

Songfacts: What are you going to sing?

Harris: They have asked if we could do "Orphan Girl" together.

Songfacts: I love that song.

Harris: I love that song, and of course, with Vince [Gill] playing a little lead and singing also. But the best thing about it, except for the stuff you hear at soundcheck, you don't really know what anybody's going to do.

Songfacts: That's what I've heard.

Harris: So what's great about this show from the artists' standpoint, is we're going to a show. We're participating, but when we're not singing our own song, we're actually getting a great seat for the show and being able to be surprised like the audience. It's great. And we get in for free.

Emmylou Harris' otherworldly singing voice makes her a consistently in-demand vocal collaborator. Many of us heard Harris for the first time on Gram Parsons' 1973 solo album GP, where she sang with the former Byrd/Flying Burrito Brother. Later that decade, she toured and recorded with The Hot Band, which was one of the best country instrumental backing groups of all time. Former Elvis Presley alumni James Burton (guitar) and Glen Hardin (piano) were both members, as was pedal steel guitarist Hank DeVito and bassist Emory Gordy, Jr. Respected singer-songwriter Rodney Crowell also sang harmonies with Harris, before he made a name for himself as a solo artist. Albums like Elite Hotel and Harris' Warner Bros. debut, Pieces of the Sky, are excellent representations of this era in her career.

In 1987, and again in 1999, Harris teamed up with Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt for the albums Trio and Trio II, which found her harmonizing on classic country and pop songs.
Songfacts: The last time I saw you was at the Hollywood Bowl. You were with Rodney [Crowell].

Harris: Oh, yeah, with Rodney.

Songfacts: You were opening for She & Him, and I remember you said something like, you know, some people probably don't even know who we are.

Harris: I'm sure that was true. But then I've been in that position many times in my career... as long as we're having fun. And She & Him couldn't have been more gracious. Wonderful to us. They asked for us specifically. They invited us. And maybe we turned on a few people. We actually had some old geezers in the audience who really love us. We have a great band and Rodney and I love singing together so much that it's pure joy for us no matter where we are. And the Hollywood Bowl is a beautiful place to play. So all in all, it's a great evening.

June 3, 2014. Get more at emmylouharris.com.
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