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Friday
Feb222008

Emmylou Harris

"If you live by the charts, you die by the charts," Emmylou Harris, the silvery voiced roots songstress who dissolves genres and owns a dozen Grammys, says conspiratorially. "Let me tell you…"

There are a lot of things Harris, whose Songbird is a 4-CDcollection of rarities, demos and collaborations, can tell you about American music. Whether it's being the acolyte Gram Parsons left at the station when he OD'd, the muse for Bob Dylan, Conor Oberst and Willie Nelson, the nurturer of writers and musicians ranging from Rodney Crowell, Patti Griffin to Ricky Skaggs or Lucinda Williams, Harris has been siren for much of what is good about the music that exists beyond the mainstream.

It's mid-afternoon in Nashville, and the sun pours into a living room filled with chintz upholstery and floral wallpaper. It is a cozy, welcoming place -- where Harris, now 60, lives with her mother Eugenia and daughter Hallie from her first marriage. Three generations under one roof bustling with cats and dogs, guitars and the last of a second photo shoot that's gone on earlier in the day.

Harris, who's been a major part of records with Neil Young, Mark Knopfler and Elvis Costello over the past year, is taking a year off. Laughing, she confides, "Sometimes just changing your routine is the same as taking a sabbatical, Johnny Cash told me once…"

Though she toured this year, the time between her own albums has given her the opportunity to consider the breadth - and magic - an odyssey across American music. From embarking on a folkie path out of college - including Gliding Bird on indie Jubilee Records - to being swept up in Gram Parsons' iconoclastic hippie-hard country axis through her run as the woman making country safe for the rock & roll masses, the Linda Ronstadt/Dolly Parton Trio projects and the ethereal Daniel Lanois produced or -influenced post-Nashville projects, Harris has walked a line of her own muse.

"Look what she's accomplished: she freed country music from stereotypes and showed rockers that country was okay," says Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum Director Kyle Young flatly. "And she showed country people rockers weren't infiltrators… She sang country without irony when country, rock and folk were worlds apart because she does it without fear, without an agenda. It's just the things she likes, the cast of musicians, songwriters and artists she brings with her… whether it's the Louvin Brothers or Buck Owens, Sam Bush, Buddy Miller, Gillian Welch or Patti Griffin.

"Because Emmylou likes it, you know it's good."

Abandoning studying theatre for long nights playing music in cafes and fellow pickers' homes, Harris embraced the communal nature of life in the service of songs. Returning to Washington, DC as a single mother with a baby, she was playing 4 sets a night - sometimes in different clubs - when Chris Hillman told Gram Parsons she might be the girl singer he was seeking for his hard country solo project.

Their collaboration is now legend. Yet Harris cautions, "It was very quick… that time… We did GP… we did the tour… we recorded Grievous Angel… and he was gone…"

Ironically, the woman who kept hearing reasons why the initial sessions kept getting postponed and at the initial sessions found herself thinking, "What is this?" because "He wasn't very together; he was drinking a lot and I couldn't believe this was going to turn into a record…" didn't get it initially, though she loved the Louvin Brothers' songs he turned her onto.

Finally, it clicked.

"One day, I really heard the genius of his voice, the beauty - and all that music opened up to me. 'Angels Rejoiced' just did it… I was gone, so converted."

Their last conversation was about the song, which appears for the first time on Songbird. "He knew 'Angels Rejoiced' was my favorite song; he called to tell me it didn't fit the album, so they were putting it on the next album. We hung up, he went to Joshua Tree… and that was it."

The woman, named a Beauty by celebweekly People, pauses for a moment, "It was very unresolved. There was no proper way to grieve - just throw yourself into music."
So she did. Returning to the vibrant folk/bluegrass scene that was Washington, DC where her friend John Starling, of the legendary Seldom Scene, suggested, "Come here and make your mistakes where you're safe and people care for you… then when you're ready…"

Rodney Crowell, who'd been flirting with Nashville as an "understudy" ex-patriate Texan alongside Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt and a kid named Steve Earle, found himself on a plane from Austin to DC to meet the woman whose harmonies on Gram Parsons' solo records stunned him. Originally Crowell's demos were given to Brian Ahearn for Anne Murray, stumped for songs the producer played the unknown writer for Harris.

"She was doing something edgy," Crowell said, about learning it was the new girl, not the hitmaker, who'd expressed interest. "I knew how good that stuff was… the music was just passion. It was more folkie, too, which is was more Texas -- and after I met her, she came through Austin with the Angel Band.

"After the gig, she said, 'Hey, I'm going to LA tomorrow and I've got an extra ticket… You wanna go?'

"I went the next day, and stayed for seven years."
Her muse took Parsons' hard country of "Country Baptisin'" and "We'll Sweep Out The Ashes" and seamlessly applied it to the Beatles and Paul Simon. That same equal opportunity truth generated her blazing Hot Band and a creative hotbed surrounding her Lanai Lane home where everyone from John Hartford to Mickey Raphael to Snuff Garrett came to jam.
That spontaneous combustion gave Crowell open door demo reality -- catching the ear of the Dirt Band, Mary Kaye Place and Bob Seger. That musical curiosity energized everything -- as long as it had passion.

"Nicolette (Larson), Linda Ronstadt was there," Crowell recalls, "I remember Bob Dylan calling, saying 'Emmyloooouuuu, you've got a song on the hit parade…' Then she went off and did Desire with him. It was like that. And she did everything she could to push all of us out front, too.

"Emmy inspires such loyalty," Crowell continues, "because she has so much integrity. She's a poet -- even before she started writing songs -- and that's what we all respond to. Even more than that voice and the passion is the poetry, the timelessness, choosing the heart over commerce."

Harris' choices have at times defined conventional wisdom. When country was slick, she made the unbending Blue Kentucky Girl, then followed it up with the Ricky Skaggs/Whites-laden bluegrass triumph Roses In The Snow. Inspired by Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska and the Glyn Johns-produced The Ballad of Jesse James, she made her own self-penned concept Ballad of Sally Rose.

Sally Rose came on the tail of a string of gold-certified Warner/Reprise albums, but "It was a huge commercial disaster… I literally did not have enough money to buy a house." Producer Paul Kennerly gently suggested returning to building a record around her voice, and the acoustic gospel Angel Band - featuring Vince Gill, Emory Gordy and Carl Jackson - was born.
"You have to pay attention, not set your agenda in such concrete that you miss what's really supposed to happen," Harris - who continued to tear up the road with Chuck Berry's "C'est La Vie" and Hank Snow's "I'm Movin' On" - concedes.

What she did best was wearing thin. Starling suggested unplugging, getting acoustic: the Nash Ramblers, featuring New Grass Revival's Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas and a young man named Randy Stewart (now CMA Song of the Year writer Jon Randall) was born, recording At The Ryman, another Nashville legend fallen on faded times. A move to Asylum Records - "where they thought they could put people like Guy Clark and I on the radio," she marvels - led to more closed doors at country radio.

"There comes a time when you're no longer invited to the party," Harris explains. "It happens… to other people, too. But if this is what you do, who knows what it'll be?"
That album -- Cowgirl's Prayer -- caught the ear of Melodie Ciccone, Daniel Lanois' manager. Harris, who'd been hooked on Dylan's Oh Mercy and Lanois' Acadie, was game. Wrecking Ball, their collaboration, sold poorly, racked up raves, won a Grammy and opened the door.
"There were these very turbulent rhythms in a live situation. The first thing we cut was 'All My Tears," which was just dripping with soul and atmosphere -- and I didn't know that kind of experience existed," explains the woman who'd recorded with George Jones, Neil Young, the Band and Waylon Jennings. "I didn't know what it could be, but I wanted to find out…"

Again set free and afire, Harris wrote the emotionally excavating Red Dirt Girl, recorded with friends, created Spyboy, helmed by Buddy Miller and a few unlikely but potent players.
"Her openness is revelatory," says producer/guitarist/artist Miller. "Ten years ago when I joined up with the band, she was always listening to something -- and not just in terms of what we were playing, but just music.

"And she gives of herself in a way nobody else does. I actually met her when I asked her to sing on my first record and was told she couldn't because of a European Hot Band Reunion Tour," Miller remembers. "Then I heard she really wanted to… and then, literally the day she was leaving, she came and sang on my record. Over 10 years, that's her over and over again… You can hear it in the music, in the shows: every night, the set would change because she wants to make it about the music and the moment…"

"I do believe like souls attract like souls," Harris says of the collaborators who've crossed her path. "I was fortunate in that I had this creative safety net, people who trusted my instincts and supported me… You've got to believe somebody's in charge, writing the script for you… and when I look around what else could I think: If I wrote this stuff down, no one would believe it could've happened that way."

The weekend prior Harris had been at a wedding in Canada where Linda, Camy and Teddy Thompson sang "Dimming of the Day" on a tiny stage. Just talking about it, the woman fourth decade into making music is aglow. That essential joy in the songs still gets her; making the quest to illuminate songs that "maybe weren't singles or played live, but made my records what they were" as something special.

"James (Austin, the project's A&R anchor) kept sending me things I'd not heard in years and years… 'Mama's Hungry Eyes' with Rodney, Chrissie Hynde and Beck on the Gram Tribute record we did, a version of 'Immigrant Eyes' that was Guy Clark's 60th birthday present, the stuff from (The Legend of) Jesse James, 'Softly & Tenderly' from the Trio sessions from a project that didn't come out in '78, the demo of 'All I Left Behind,' 'Sonny' with Dolores Keane and Mary Black which was a #1 track in Ireland…"

Her voice -- every bit as iridescent in conversation -- trails off. These aren't just songs or moments: Harris can tell you every detail about where, with whom, what happened for each.
"Looking at the tracks," says Jed Hilley, Executive Director of the Americana Music Association, "the breadth of experience she had, the songs, the music… it's so vast, yet it's all such pure integrity. There's that siren voice, and then there's what she does with it."
"It's really the same thing as in the beginning," Harris says. "You know when something's right, and you'd be upset if you lost that… The devil is the voice inside your head telling you something different, that you can get away with it.

"It always has been about the poetry…," she continues, defining how broad that can be. "There's poetry in my mother's poundcake and her pie crust. I am 60 years old and have been doing this for a long time -- and it's harder and harder to get inspired in some ways, and in others, well, all it takes is one song."

One song is cutting it pretty short. Songbird alone contains 68, each sparkling in its unique beauty. These are the songs that've never been part of a compilation. These are obscure treasures, not-obvious moments - and with a new album slated for sometimes in 2008, there is still more to come.

Watching her talk so gently, so warmly about her journey, the notion of music as refuge is as obvious as the sweep of snow white hair that curves around her pristine jaw. She recognizes the Cinderella nature of her story, too.
"Maybe I'm guilty of glossing over the facts," she begins, then resolves with the quiet firmness of a true Alabama belle. "But when I really look at all of it, well, this is what happened."

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