Emmylou Harris: 'I looked down on country'

She thought it was hokey but ended up one of country's giants. As Emmylou Harris revisits the songs that made her, she talks to Alfred Hickling about odes to hedonism, life after Gram Parsons – and the band that left her $250,000 in debt

'People expect me to be the ultimate cowgirl," says Emmylou Harris, "but I never even learned to ride." The singer is talking about the various misconceptions that go with being a country-music icon. "And I can't sing nearly as high as folks think I can," she adds. "But even when I had those higher notes, I never had what I considered to be a classic, country voice. I'm more of a harmony singer."

That may seem a strange admission from someone who has notched up 26 solo albums and received just under half that number of Grammy awards. But a significant part of her output consists of collaborations. She has duetted with everyone from bluegrass inventor Bill Monroe to Bob Dylan and Mumford & Sons. Then there are the million-selling albums she made with her close friends Linda Ronstadt and Dolly Parton. And now she has reunited with one of her oldest musical partners, Rodney Crowell, for an album of classic country duets entitled Old Yellow Moon.

Crowell enjoyed mainstream country success in the late 1980s when his album Diamonds and Dirt became the first to get five consecutive No 1 singles on the Billboard country chart. But he got his first big break when Harris chose one of his songs, Bluebird Wine, as the lead track for Pieces of the Sky, her debut album with a major label. "No two ways about it," he says. "If it hadn't been for Emmy, I wouldn't be sitting here now."

"Here" is a discreet hotel in London's Marble Arch. Harris arrives with her dignified silver hair twisted into a bun and a pair of half-moon spectacles sliding down her nose. Quiet and slightly pensive, she looks more visiting academic than rodeo diva. With his pale eyes, flossy hair and rugged features, Crowell is more evidently the country-music grandee – an imposing Texan in a black silk scarf and matching trilby.

They're almost the same age (Harris is 65, Crowell 62) and are so comfortable in each other's company, they might easily be taken for brother and sister. Yet their backgrounds could hardly be more different. Crowell grew up in the hardscrabble suburbs of east Houston and has vivid memories of being taken to see Hank Williams on his father's shoulders. Harris was a military officer's daughter from Alabama who once wrote to Pete Seeger saying she'd love to become a folk singer, but was concerned she hadn't suffered enough. "It's true," she laughs. "He wrote back to say life would come back and hit me hard soon enough."

Curiously, they did have one thing in common: no particular desire to go into country music. When Crowell first began gigging, he gave out business cards saying he could play "the English sound, surf beat, rhythm and blues – or country, if you want it". He explains: "Where I grew up, everyone was either a sharecrop farmer or working in unskilled jobs in the oil industry. There was country music coming out of every house and bar. But as far as I was concerned, it was stuff your parents listened to." As for Harris, she confesses to being "a folk snob" – on a mission to be the next Joan Baez. "I looked down on country as something hokey and simple," she says. "If it wasn't Bob Dylan, I wasn't interested. But then I met Gram Parsons, and he changed my life."

Parsons, the country-rock pioneer who had briefly been a member of the Byrds and turned Keith Richards on to country music, was an angel-faced, self-destructive figure who spotted Harris singing in a folk club in Washington DC. He recruited her to sing harmony on the two solo albums he completed before dying of a drug overdose 40 years ago, at the age of 26.

"I found my voice singing harmony with Gram," Harris says. "He turned me on to all the washed-in-the-blood stuff, the Louvin Brothers, Bill Monroe, George Jones. And he didn't water it down. These were deep, emotionally troubling songs, but he opened my ears to the beauty of it, the simplicity of the poetry. Even today, I still think that's the hardest kind of song to write."

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Parsons' death left Harris struggling to find a new musical partner. "I listened to hundreds of demos and turned most of them off after the first few bars. Eventually, my producer said, 'Well, there's one left, from this kid Rodney Crowell.' He put it in the machine, and I heard Bluebird Wine. That was when the clouds parted – it was fresh, original, and I instantly knew I'd found the guy I wanted to work with."

Crowell adds: "The birth of that song was late nights with Townes van Zandt and Guy Clark and that crazy, hard-drinking crew in early 1970s Nashville. They were tough guys to impress; it seemed the best way to hold their attention would be to write an ode to hedonism."

"You know, I never thought of it as a hedonistic song," Harris counters. "I see it more as a song about possibilities. To me, Bluebird Wine represents joy. It's the elixir, it's about drinking from the fountain of youth."

Crowell laughs: "Yeah – that's what she says. Print that."

The song became so significant to both that it was a natural choice for inclusion on the new recording, although Crowell has revised some of the lines he's less proud of. The album also brings together, for the first time in more than 30 years, many of the musicians who accompanied this twosome under the name the Hot Band, one of the finest (and most expensive) back-up bands ever assembled.

Crowell has also taken the opportunity to reclaim some of the songs he gifted to other people. The tearful ballad Here We Are was originally recorded in 1979 as a duet between Harris and the king of weeping-into-one's-whisky tunes, George Jones. And the swaggering Bullrider is a rodeo monologue first cut by Crowell's former father-in-law, Johnny Cash. "Growing up in Texas, we rode bulls like other inner-city kids played basketball," Crowell says nonchalantly. "It was just part of the culture."

How did the Hot Band get its name? "Well, we were damn good, but it was slightly tongue-in-cheek," Harris says. "It came about because someone at the record company – and this was the early 1970s, remember – decided, 'We gotta put the chick singer together with a hot band.'" Despite being virtually unknown at the time, Harris managed to hire guitarist James Burton and pianist Glen D Hardin, both of whom had played with Elvis Presley. It made her reputation – but left her $250,000 in debt.

"Are you out of it yet?" Crowell asks.

"I made it all back in record sales – so it turned out to be a smart business move. That was something else I learned from Gram, 'If you pay the best, you'll play with the best.'"

Although Crowell and Harris plan to tour, a Hot Band reunion is unlikely. "We were a great band 30 years ago," says Harris. "But right at the beginning, the Hot Band was just me and Rodney, sitting late into the night, singing harmony and strumming guitars. Now it's back down to the two of us again."


Alfred Hickling

The GuardianTramp

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