Emmylou Harris on her greatest hits: 'I was arrogant enough to think I could survive a flop'

The singer-songwriter talks us through her career, including duetting with Gram Parsons, discovering Gillian Welch – and wondering why today’s country music doesn’t speak to her

Emmylou Harris is sitting in the middle of her own exhibit, Songbird’s Flight, at the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville, surrounded by artefacts from a fascinating and still-thriving career. There are riches behind the glass displays, including the blonde Gibson guitar given to her by Gram Parsons and a handwritten note that the teenage Harris sent to the editor of a folk music journal. “It’s all a little overwhelming,” Harris says, looking around. “Though a lot of this stuff was still in my closet. I’m terrible at giving stuff away.”

Harris, now 71, has become one of music’s most revered voices, releasing close to 30 albums and collaborating with everyone from Dolly Parton to Bright Eyes across her 50-year career. She has written her own material and become one of America’s finest interpreters of song. “For me, it’s always about the lyrics,” she says as she picks out her favourite tracks from her back catalogue. “When I write, it’s the lyrics first. But I much prefer the pre-made-up song.”

Love Hurts

To think of Harris is often to think of her brief but incredibly influential partner in song, the cosmic cowboy Gram Parsons: the man frequently credited with helping give birth to alt-country, influencing artists from Ryan Adams to Wilco. Before they met, Harris was paying her dues on Washington DC’s folk scene and not particularly interested in country music in spite of growing up in Alabama (“I hadn’t matured enough to appreciate it,” she says). But Parsons changed all that: recruiting Harris for his touring band, the Fallen Angels, he introduced her to the complex but humanistic language of country. Their take on Felice and Boudleaux Bryant’s classic Love Hurts became a seminal moment not in just her journey towards Americana, but in assuming her role as the queen of harmony.

“I discovered my own voice singing in harmony with Gram,” says Harris. “There is something about the uniqueness of two voices creating a sound that does not come when they are singing solo, and I have always been fascinated by that. That song, and our harmony, is kind of a pinnacle of our duet-singing together.” Parsons died soon after they recorded the song for his 1973 album Grievous Angel (“We probably did it all in one take, live,” Harris recalls), but his short role in her life set off the domino rally of her career.

Boulder to Birmingham

After Parsons’ death, Harris was reeling and inconsolable. She had already established herself as an impressive interpreter of song, a legacy cemented by her exquisite second solo album, 1975’s Pieces of the Sky. It contained just one Harris writing credit, Boulder to Birmingham. Composed with Bill Danoff, it helped her work through the loss of Parsons.

“That song was very important,” says Harris, whose connection with the married Parsons was artistic and emotional, not physical. “Words can be so powerful to help you express something you otherwise can’t. And everyone has experienced loss, so even though the song is deeply personal, I can understand how people can relate to it, having lost someone who is very close to them.” It took Harris until the 80s to be able to write about Parsons again, and she still speaks about him with tenderness.

Till I Gain Control Again

In 1975, very few people knew the name Rodney Crowell, now himself a country great and two-time Grammy winner. But the second that Harris heard his songs after meeting in Washington DC late after a gig, she knew that was about to change. Till I Gain Control Again was one of the first pieces the Texan played for her, and it resonated instantly. “It stunned me that someone that young could write something that sounds like it was from the ages,” Harris says, still sounding bewildered.

Harris recorded the song for her second album of 1975, Elite Hotel, which also contained a co-write with Crowell on Amarillo. “Rodney can be very poetic,” says Harris, whose expansive yet fragile vocals brought those words to life. “And [his work] fed into my folk sensibilities and country sensibilities. Till I Gain Control Again is made of pure, simple imagery, which are the hardest songs to write. That’s what is brilliant about the classic country songs: you can’t get too wordy.”

Since then, Harris and Crowell have been longtime creative partners. “He’s one of my oldest friends,” she says. “Now we are grandparents. We went through being parents, through divorces and marriages, and children and grandchildren. You cannot not have fun around Rodney. I had him all to myself before the world discovered him, and he’s like a brother to me.”

Pancho and Lefty

Harris opened for the young Townes Van Zandt in 1968 and was “stunned” when she first heard him. “I had never heard those kinds of lyrics with those melodies; the haunting quality in his voice was like the ghost of Hank Williams,” Harris says. She was soon covering his rich story-song about two ill-fated Mexican bandits, Pancho and Lefty, on the road with Crowell’s help.

“People always ask: what’s that song about?” Harris recalls. “I see it as: we make decisions in our lives that we regret, and Lefty had to live with those decisions. Townes recorded it, and I didn’t write it, but I always think that song is mine. I planted my flag right there. It became a very pivotal song in my repertoire.”

Van Zandt died in 1997. It is difficult for Harris to get her head around the fact that so many of her contemporaries are now gone, also mentioning Guy Clark and Waylon Jennings. “It’s just hard. They spoke to me in a way that perhaps the new generation, though I appreciate them, doesn’t. Their music is timeless.”

Darkest Hour Is Just Before Dawn

While Harris had some success in the country charts in the 1970s, she found her share of traditionalist detractors, too: they implied that she “wasn’t country enough” and she was never quite as genre-pure as they wanted her to be. Her response? Give those naysayers something to chew on in the form of a diehard country record (bluegrass, to be exact) called Roses in the Snow (1980). She recruited Ricky Skaggs and scores of ace musicians – from Johnny Cash to Willie Nelson – to cover tracks such as Ralph Stanley’s Darkest Hour Is Just Before Dawn, which she brings to life as the melancholy mountain song it was always intended as (“It’s a magnificent piece,” she says). The critics had to eat humble pie: it went gold faster than any of her previous albums.

“There had been someone at the record company who predicted it was going to be the end of my career if I did a bluegrass record,” she says. “I was arrogant enough back then to think I could survive a flop, a commercial disaster. Which it could have been. But bluegrass fans are everywhere, all over the world, and they came out of the woodwork.” Still, Harris marvels that her label even let her experiment. “They’d say: ‘OK, let’s put it in the machinery and see how far it goes,’” she says, in awe of the days when music could win out over the bottom line. “People actually used to do that! Now they’re so out of touch with what is going on.”

Woman Walk the Line

In the mid-80s, Harris finally found herself at a point where she was able to dive fully into her grief surrounding the loss of Parsons, crafting a whole album based around the indelible impression he left on her life: 1985’s The Ballad of Sally Rose. “That was the first time I threw myself into writing a whole album,” says Harris. The centrepiece, Woman Walk the Line, contained a line that has become its own sort of feminist rallying cry: “Yes I’m a woman and I’m lonely, but that don’t mean I can’t be strong.”

Orphan Girl

Orphan Girl, written by Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings, was another example of Harris’s gift for finding standout songs, and standout writers, in a crowded scene. Harris was given a cassette that included a primitive version of the track from the now-famed folk duo. “It blew my mind,” she recalls. “It sounded like some old song dug up in a pile of old 45s. I definitely wanted to record it.” Harris was working on Wrecking Ball at the time, the transformative 1995 album that integrated more urgent tempos into her sound. For Orphan Girl, she and the producer Daniel Lanois created a “powerful rhythm” around drums and acoustic guitar to tell the story of Welch’s childhood adoption.

“What that song shows is how you can take a simple country song that is almost traditional, and – in the hands of a producer like Daniel – turn it into something that has a different kind of power,” Harris says. She calls Wrecking Ball a turning point that “got her musician juices flowing again. It was like putting dynamite to a logjam.”

Red Dirt Girl

After Wrecking Ball, Guy Clark told Harris that she had to write her next record: “‘No ifs, ands or buts, and I don’t want any excuses. I don’t care if it takes you five years.’ And it did take me that much time.” Harris got to work, observing the world around her as she made the drive from Nashville to New Orleans, where she was recording the LP.

Based on memories of her childhood in Alabama, it shows the deftness of Harris’s writing. Although the red-dirt girl herself is a fictional composite, Harris sees much of herself in the story. “To me, there were always two red-dirt girls,” she says of the narrator and protagonist, Lillian, who kills herself in the end. “I could have just as easily been the other one who made some decisions and took their life down a road that wasn’t nearly as good a path as that other person. It doesn’t mean I’m better than that person. I was lucky.”

Emmylou Harris: Songbird’s Flight is at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, Nashville, until 4 August 2019.


Marissa R Moss

The GuardianTramp

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