Emmylou Harris: ‘There are things I don't think we'll ever know the answers to’

The musician, 70, on rethinking her career, laughing with Dolly Parton and shopping with Neil Young

My father was a PoW in Korea. He was also in the Second World War. I clearly remember the day we were told he was missing in action. We didn’t know he was a prisoner of war until just before he was released. I never talked to him about his experiences. He wouldn’t ever talk about it. I wrote the song Bang The Drum Slowly about that, after he’d died.

My parents were married for 50 years. They had a wonderful marriage. My brother and I were lucky beneficiaries of that. They were a truly magical couple, and until I went to college I thought that everyone was like that.

Moving around when I was a child [her father was in the Marine Corps] taught me to take “home” with me when I was on tour, and wherever I went. I’ve always found touring exciting.

I released a record in 1985 called The Ballad of Sally Rose, which was a commercial disaster. I put my heart – and my bank account – into the tour for that record. I lost a lot of money. At the end of the tour I was booked to play a petting zoo. I had to rethink my career after that.

Spiritually I’m a seeker. There are things I don’t think we’ll ever know the answers to, but I think we all must be more concerned with the here and now than the afterlife.

I don’t believe anyone would have any interest in me if I’d never met Gram Parsons. He instilled in me a deep love for country music. Before that I was just a Joan Baez wannabe.

You can learn so much from animals. They have this wonderful quality of being in the moment, and they help you spend time there. They don’t worry about the past, or the future: all they care about is their walk and being with you. I run a dog rescue on my property in Nashville.

If you love your work, you don’t need to rest. My work is nourishing, and in many cases it’s what has got me from one day to another. The people I’ve met through it keep me going. Neil Young, or my band, producers… We’re a little community. We see each other down at the grocery store.

Dolly Parton is the funniest person. Working with her and Linda Ronstadt was the definition of fun. We laughed a lot, and we worked. Did we get greedy about how many solos we were getting? No! We had to make sure Linda was singing enough!

I’ve lived a very harmonious life. I just turned 70, and when I look back I really think I must have done something right in a past life to have had it so good. People quote Martin Luther King: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” I have to believe that.

Emmylou Harris appears at C2C Country To Country festival in London this weekend


James McMahon

The GuardianTramp

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