Emmylou Harris: I really don’t listen to new country music anymore

The country legend on the legacy of Gram Parsons, musical labels and why it took her nearly four decades to make records with her pal Rodney Crowell

At the recent Country Music Awards, Nashville’s answer to the Grammys, the title of entertainer of the year went to Luke Bryan. A purveyor of characterless, chugging pop with a southern twang, Bryan’s main innovation seems to be not wearing a stetson on stage. Surely the self-styled Music City can do better than that?

It seems an obvious question to ask Emmylou Harris, anyway. Maybe the queen of country can provide some insight into how the folk music of America has been hijacked. But I don’t get very far.

“I have to plead ignorance. I really don’t listen to current country,” says Harris over the phone to Australia, where she will be performing a series of dates in June. “I’m not making a statement, it’s just that my mind is elsewhere and my ears are elsewhere.”

It turns out Harris doesn’t even think of herself as a country singer anymore. “The people that I know that are making music, they now have a name for us and they call it Americana. So it’s Buddy Miller, Patti Griffin, Steve Earle and Shawn Colvin, Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings. And obviously Rodney.”

Obviously. That’s Rodney Crowell, veteran singer-songwriter, one-time son-in-law of Johnny Cash, with whom Harrishas just released a second album of (mainly) new songs, The Traveling Kind. Like its 2013 predecessor Old Yellow Moon, it’s a lovely journey through their joint musical hinterland, featuring finely crafted songs, graceful harmonies and just a little bit of honky tonk.

Given that the duo have known each other since the 70s when Crowell was the guitarist in Harris’s Hot Band, what took them so long to get into a studio together? “Well, my career took off and Rodney’s took off,” she begins, “and we’ve been busy making records with other people. Rodney’s a successful producer, he wrote a book, we both had three marriages, divorces, the birth of children and grandchildren...”.

She says she always knew they’d make a record one of these days though. “And I’m so glad we waited because there’s a certain weight and even sweetness to this record that has to do with a friendship that has gone through so much ... we’ve experienced so much together.”

The album’s title track is an homage of sorts to the long road from those early days to where the pair find themselves now, as the great country survivors. “We don’t all die young to save our spark from the ravages of time,” they sing, in as near-perfect harmony as you could hope to find, “but the first and last to leave their mark someday become the traveling kind.”

It sounds like they’ve been sitting on the porch together, attempting to sum up their lives . But Harris says it’s more of a “shout-out” to those who’ve shared the journey with them. “We’ve lost some really good friends who have inspired us and were kind of on that road with us, as well as people we never met but whose music and lives and those who have gone after us.”

Prime among them, I imagine, must be Gram Parsons. The great lost genius of country music, who died from a drug overdose in 1973, plucked Harris from relative obscurity and together they made records which remain among the highwater marks of American roots music.

“It was the beginning for me of everything,” says Harris of the collaboration. “I had huge influences in the folk field such as Joan Baez. But it was Gram and singing harmonies with him that kind of forged whatever it is that is unique about my voice.

“It gave me a purpose because I felt that in the beginning I had to continue what he had done. It only goes for so long before you realise that you are on that journey by yourself ... but you are joined by all these other amazing people who influence you and become really important. But that was the real starting point if there is any artistry to what I do.

She doesn’t say so herself, but, in many ways, Harris is still the keeper of the flame. As Nashville pumps out a twangy version of pop music in its efforts to keep the money rolling in, Harris is looking for who might carry on the traditions.

“I need to keep my ears open,” she says, name-checking the likes of South Carolina’s Shovels and Rope among her favourites of the new wave of country talent. “We have the Americana awards – not televised thankfully because it think it inhibits the spirit of the evening – but you see these very creative, interesting people who come from roots music, but they’re reinventing it.”

It’s the way music must journey on, she says. “You have to have fresh ideas and fresh experiences. But we don’t forget the past where a lot of these ideas and influences are coming from – the inspiration.”

  • The Traveling Kind is out now on Nonesuch Records. Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell are currently touring the US and will be playing a series of dates in Australia, starting in Perth on 21 June.


Martin Farrer

The GuardianTramp

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