Emmylou Harris has been hailed as a major figure in several of America’s most important musical movements of the past three decades. A steadfast supporter of roots music and a skilled interpreter of compelling songs, she also has been associated with a diverse array of admiring collaborators.
Harris’ contributions to country-rock, the bluegrass revival, folk music, and the Americana movement are widely lauded, and in recent years she also has carved out a sound that is uniquely her own. Her 1995 Wrecking Ball was a watershed album for her, combining several world-music elements with acoustic instruments, driving percussion, and a folk/roots flavor. The new style would evolve on a number of Harris’ subsequent releases, including 1998’s Spyboy, 1999’s Western Wall (a collaboration with Linda Ronstadt), and 2000’s Red Dirt Girl, which was praised as a showcase for Emmylou Harris’s songwriting talent.
Stumble into Grace’s musical textures come courtesy of a cast that includes fellow musicians such as Ronstadt, Jane Siberry, Kate and Anna McGarrigle, Bernie Leadon, Buddy and Julie Miller, Daniel Lanois, and Gillian Welch, plus producer/multi-instrumentalist Malcolm Burn. The record includes sounds unique to Emmylou’s ever-expanding musical palette, such as whistling, electric-guitar slashes, a Cuban churanga, B2 organ sighs, acoustic-guitar ripples, accordion wheezes, steel-guitar moans, and vocal harmonies inspired by Fiji islanders.
“I don’t know how to explain this ‘late blooming’ as a writer,” Harris comments. “I did start out as a writer. There’s that first, thankfully forgotten, album (1970’s obscure Gliding Bird). I wrote most of the songs on that. Then I think maybe when I got into singing these really classic songs as an interpreter, the level of songs I was singing was so high, to me, that there was probably a little bit of intimidation at work. And I was very happy interpreting. I didn’t feel like anything was missing.”
Harris cites Bruce Springsteen’s 1982 Nebraska as a turning point and an inspiration. At the time, she was feeling artistically “tired” and wanted to challenge herself in a new direction. The result was her acclaimed, self-penned album, The Ballad of Sally Rose. After 1995’s Wrecking Ball, producer Daniel Lanois insisted she write songs for her next album, too. When Malcolm Burn signed on as Red Dirt Girl’s producer, he unwittingly added another incentive.
“We set the recording time. Malcolm said, ‘I want to get musicians who are also writers. I like the idea of jamming and writing songs off the floor,’ which horrified me. But I didn’t want to say that I didn’t want to do it. So I said to myself, ‘If I have enough finished songs, I’ll feel more comfortable going into that arena.’ Well, I guess my fear was so great that I wound up writing all but one of that album’s songs.”
Once those songwriting “muscles” were exercised, a floodgate of creativity opened and continued to blossom as she created her new album. Stumble into Grace - on which Harris wrote or co-wrote everything except the traditional ‘Plaisir d’Amour’ - contains the ethereally spiritual “Here I Am”, as well as its philosophical bookend, the swaying, gentle “Cup of Kindness”. Although she has always been politically engaged, Emmylou Harris had never before written social commentary songs on the order of her apocalyptic “Time in Babylon” or the unsettling lyrics about female genocide in “Lost Unto This World”.
“Little Bird” combines a Peruvian melody with a lyric that has an old-time Appalachian quality. “Jupiter Rising” finds Harris settling into an upbeat groove, while “Can You Hear Me Now” is truly a dark night of the soul. The throbbing “O Evangeline” contains the line from which the album takes its name... The abandoned woman in “I Will Dream” also voices some of this record’s most lovely poetic imagery. The beautifully melodic ballad “Strong Hand (for June)” is an elegy for the late June Carter Cash.
“Once I’m into the songwriting mode, I just chisel and chisel and chisel away. But sometimes there are these wonderful moments when a song just comes in a snap. That’s like the reward that you’ve earned for all the agony on all the other songs,” Harris says “I don’t know that I have a particular method. When I’m home, I go into that room every day. Strum on the guitar. Try some tunings. Scatter notes around everywhere. I don’t use a computer. I sing into a cassette player and write things down. Towards suppertime, I’ll take a break and watch some TV. Then after everybody has gone to bed, I’ll go back to work until two or three in the morning. Sometimes I’ll go upstairs, because I keep guitars up there, too.”
That she finds time to write at home at all is a wonder. Between 1998 and 2000, for instance, Harris issued a live album, Spyboy, with her band, worked with Willie Nelson on his much applauded Teatro CD, won her ninth Grammy Award for her Trio II reunion with Linda Ronstadt and Dolly Parton, produced the Gram Parsons tribute album, and issued her much-anticipated Ronstadt collaboration, Western Wall.
Between 2000 and the present, she has appeared on the O Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack and its spin-off Down from the Mountain tour, collaborated with the Chieftains on their Down the Old Plank Road album and TV special, recorded a duet album with Mark Knopfler, performed concerts on behalf of a Landmine Free World, penned liner notes for a Dolly Parton tribute CD, recorded a duet with Rodney Crowell for a Louvin Brothers tribute CD, performed on the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s Will the Circle Be Unbroken III CD, and sang backup on albums for Sheryl Crow, Tracy Chapman, the Dixie Chicks, Patty Griffin, Patty Loveless, Delbert McClinton, Jim Lauderdale, Pam Tillis, and Nanci Griffith, among others.
Emmylou Harris is invited to perform everywhere from the massive Bonnaroo jam-band rock festival to bluegrass concerts: “That just delights me,” she admits. “It proves what I’ve always thought: that people are eclectic in their tastes, just like me. Most people don’t listen to only one kind of music. For the most part, I think people just want to hear good music.”
That is a credo she has lived by throughout her career. Harris took up guitar as a teenager inspired by the folk music of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Judy Collins and Peter, Paul and Mary. Starving-artist stints in Greenwich Village and Nashville led to regular club work in Washington D.C. Country-rock visionary Gram Parsons discovered her there and brought her to Los Angeles to become his duet partner in 1972.
“I lucked into this whole thing,” she comments. “One little millimeter would have made the difference. If my babysitter hadn’t been at that Flying Burrito Brothers concert and given Gram my phone number, if Gram hadn’t come into my life, who knows what would have become of me?”
After apprenticing Parsons, she emerged as a solo star with Pieces of the Sky in 1975. The album electrified the country-music world, becoming the first of her eight consecutive gold or platinum records. Today, Emmylou Harris is regarded as a key figure in a movement that united rock audiences with country traditionalists. She made country music “hip” and brought it to a vast youth market for the first time.
Elite Hotel, Luxury Liner, and Quarter Moon in a Ten-Cent Town made her an unquestioned country-rock leader. Then she led the way back to neo-traditionalist sounds with 1979’s Blue Kentucky Girl. The following year’s Roses in the Snow paved the road toward the bluegrass revival.
Her self-penned The Ballad of Sally Rose was followed by the massively successful 1987 Trio LP with Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt. Angel Band, an album saluting traditional gospel music, appeared next.
In the 1990s Harris took a leading role in yet another musical revolution - the Americana movement that gave country music its “alternative” wing. She reinvented her sound with the acoustic band, The Nash Ramblers, and honored one of country music’s most legendary concert halls with the Grammy-winning Live at the Ryman CD of 1991. She earned another Grammy four years later with Wrecking Ball.
The wide range of her repertoire is mirrored by the musicians who have sought her out as a collaborator. She has recorded with artists from diverse points on the musical compass, such as The Judds, The Band, Johnny Cash, Leo Kottke, Bob Dylan, Little Feat, Tammy Wynette, Neil Young, Bill Monroe, Lyle Lovett, John Denver, Roy Orbison, Trisha Yearwood, Bonnie Raitt, Garth Brooks, Lucinda Williams, and George Jones. Stars such as Ricky Skaggs, Rodney Crowell, and The Whites have emerged from the ranks of her bands. Harris was among the first to champion the songwriting of such figures as Crowell, Jesse Winchester, Townes Van Zandt, Delbert McClinton, Carlene Carter, Guy Clark, and David Olney.
Billboard magazine honored Emmylou Harris with its prestigious Century Award in 1999. At the time, she was lauded as a “truly venturesome, genre-transcending pathfinder” who being given the award “to acknowledge the uncommon excellence of (her) still-unfolding body of work.”
In October 2003, Harris was the curator for a weeklong festival of her peers and protegees at New York’s prestigious Carnegie Hall. Kate and Anne McGarrigle, Steve Earle, Buddy and Julie Miller and Patty Griffin performed on succeeding nights in the brand-new Zankel Hall, capped by Harris’ own showcase performance in the larger Isaac Stern Auditorium.
Harris wrote or co-wrote eleven of the thirteen songs on 2011’s Hard Bargain, and the album is full of cleanly drawn stories of people struggling to rise to the challenges of life, ranging from characters who are homeless (“Home Sweet Home”) or wrestling with the aftermath of tragedy (“New Orleans”) to Harris’ own memories of touring with Parsons (“The Road”) and a scandalous murder that galvanized the civil rights movement in 1955 (“My Name Is Emmett Till”). While Hard Bargain is an album full of sad stories, it’s admirably short on melodrama, and Harris keeps these songs sounding honest, heartfelt, and tuned to the realities of American life.
At the age of 64, Emmylou Harris has made an album as fresh and distinctive as any in her catalog, and Hard Bargain is a reminder that her evolution into a songwriter is one of the most pleasant surprises in a career that’s produced rewarding music for nearly 40 years.