Emmylou Harris

By  Geoffrey Himes |  November 30, 2010

The Song Catcher

It's the fall of 1999, and Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt are sitting in an Upper East Side Manhattan hotel room doing publicity for their latest album, WESTERN WALL: THE TUCSON SESSIONS (Asylum). Despite the posh surroundings, Ronstadt is barefoot, and her red-painted toenails are tucked beneath her as she curls up in a big chair, dressed in a blue denim jacket and rolled-up dungarees. Harris is wearing a simple white pullover and cotton pants with an eye-gouging green print.

Their conversation is as casual as their clothes; it's as if they were next-door neighbors getting together for coffee, doughnuts, and gossip at a kitchen table. In the midst of the banter, however, Ronstadt puts her finger on what may be Harris's most distinctive gift, more telling, even, than her corn-silk soprano.

"Emmy is the best song scout in the world," Ronstadt insists. "She stays up later than most of us do and hangs out more; she goes out with her guitar and actually learns songs. More importantly, she can hear how a song could be done differently. For example, she sent me Kate and Anna McGarrigle's 'Going Back to Harlan,' and I didn't hear it at first. But Emmy heard something in that song, something mysterious, and she kept at it until I heard it, too."

Ronstadt's "song scout" theory may explain why Harris was one of the most successful country artists of the '70s and remains one of Nashville's most revered figures today. Harris, after all, is not an overpowering singer. She has a lovely voice, but it's light in timbre and limited in range. She's a middling songwriter; the few tunes she has written are unlikely to be recorded by others. And as an instrumentalist, she's no more than a competent rhythm guitarist.

But no one else has such good taste in songs, in musicians, and in arrangements. In fact, she has exhibited better taste more consistently over a longer period of time than anyone in the history of country music. You can comb through her albums and never find an embarrassingly corny novelty number or a shamelessly maudlin weeper or a naval-gazing confessional. Who else has two dozen albums like that?

"I love to bring songs to people," Harris says. "I hear a song, and I can hear it in my voice or someone else's voice."

Over the years Harris has introduced such songwriters as Butch Hancock, Jesse Winchester, Townes Van Zandt, Delbert McClinton, Patty Griffin, and Utah Phillips to a wider audience by covering their songs. On different occasions Harris has hired such obscure-at-the-time songwriters as Rodney Crowell, Barry Tashian, Paul Kennerley, and Buddy Miller to work as singer-guitarists in her band.

Harris's antennae are so finely tuned that she can find songwriters even before they have been recorded. The best example of this is Gillian Welch, who was just another Californian struggling to make it in Nashville when she played her Appalachian lament "Orphan Girl" in a club one night. Harris was there and quickly grabbed the piece for her 1995 album, WRECKING BALL. Her interpretation was so eerily timeless that it seemed the song's character could have been abandoned during the Civil War or a recent crack war. Both the performance and the song were so riveting that they helped launch Welch's career.

Nimbly straddling the country-pop divide, Harris has demonstrated how rock writers such as Neil Young, Chuck Berry, and Lennon and McCartney could thrive in a country context, and she has proven that country writers such as Buck Owens, Ralph Stanley, and Charlie and Ira Louvin could work in a pop-rock setting. She's also tirelessly championed the songs of her late mentor, Gram Parsons.

When they first met at a bluegrass bar outside Washington, D.C., Parsons was already legendary as the driving force behind The Byrds' SWEETHEART OF THE RODEO album and as cofounder of the Flying Burrito Brothers. Harris, on the other hand, was a twenty-four-year-old single mother with one overproduced, under-marketed album to her credit, a day job as a hostess, and a night job as a bluegrass-tinged folk singer. Parsons, who had been tipped off by his ex-bandmates, heard her perform and knew she needed to stop singing collegiate folk songs and start singing honky-tonk for adults.

A year later Parsons sent Harris a plane ticket to L.A. so she could sing on his first solo albumG.P. Harris remembers that they didn't talk much about singing or songs; their voices just fell together naturally, and they harmonized on tune after tune, eight, twelve hours a day. They were mostly the hard-country numbers that Parsons loved, and at some point in these marathon sessions something clicked in Harris's head, and she grasped the strange combination of confessional honesty and stubborn dignity that makes for classic country music.

This created the template she would rely on time and again over the next thirty years. If you ask her how she chooses her material, she will deflect the question by claiming it's a mystery—but really it's not. If you sift through her catalog, you will repeatedly find the same sort of song, whether it comes in a country costume, a rock disguise, or a singer-songwriter outfit. And from that type, you can deduce what Harris looks for, even if it is subconscious on her part.

What she looks for are songs that deal with some sort of loss-betrayal, break-up, bereavement. She looks for songs that refuse the easy escapes of avoidance or self-pity, of romantic softening or hard-edged bitterness. Instead she chooses those that face up to the price that must be paid for loss, songs that insist on the pride necessary for life to go on—as it always does.

Listen to her sing Rodney Crowell's "Till I Gain Control Again," from 1975's ELITE HOTEL. In her pure, breathy soprano you can hear the pain of a life torn to pieces by lies, but you can also hear the determination to put that life back together and "gain control again." Listen to her sing Dolly Parton's "To Daddy," from 1978's QUARTER MOON IN A TEN CENT TOWN. As a daughter recounts her mother's stoic suffering and ultimate rebellion in an unhappy marriage, that same refusal to whine or give in informs Harris's steely vocal. Listen to her sing John Hiatt's "Icy Blue Heart," from 1988's BLUEBIRD. She tells the story of a woman with a heart of solid ice, and Harris's delivery, stern and deliberate, never underestimates the hurt that has frozen that organ in the first place or how much heat it would take to melt it. Listen to her sing Steve Earle's "Goodbye," from WRECKING BALL. She keens like a ghost as she laments a lover that got away from her, but the edge in her voice makes it clear that the relationship is gone for good.

"An Emmylou Harris cut is pretty much the ultimate compliment in this business," Steve Earle insists. "It really is. Because if you just look at the quality of the songs in her whole body of work, it's amazing. My two favorite covers of my own songs are both Emmylou cuts—'Goodbye' on WRECKING BALL and the version of 'Guitar Town' on her live album."

Earle first met Harris at the legendary song swaps presided over by Van Zandt and Guy Clark in the early and mid-'70s. Earle wasn't the only unknown kid from Texas to sneak into those late-night Nashville sessions: Rodney Crowell was also there with his guitar.

"Those song swaps were not about playing your hits," Crowell remembers. "They were always about playing the latest thing you'd written. The secret was getting drunk enough to say, 'Hey, here's something I just wrote,' and not be scared.

"My relationship with Emmylou was born in that atmosphere. We'd get together and play new songs, and she'd say, 'What have you been writing?' Emmy may not be a songwriter per se, but she...has all the sensibility and perceptiveness of a poet. A conversation with Emmy is a poem. Though she wasn't writing, she was keenly aware of what goes into a song."

"She's a connoisseur of songs," Earle agrees, "because her teachers—not just Gram but also people like Guy Clark and John Starling—instilled those standards in her."

But Parsons was the key influence, and Harris has never stopped thanking him for it. Her early albums were filled with his compositions, and the first album that she wrote mostly herself, 1985's THE BALLAD OF SALLY ROSE, was a song cycle about Parsons. And two years ago she executive-produced RETURN OF THE GRIEVOUS ANGEL: A TRIBUTE TO GRAM PARSONS (Almo). Harris sang duets with Beck, Chrissie Hynde, and Sheryl Crow, and encouraged such pals as Earle, Lucinda Williams, and Elvis Costello to participate.

"The tribute format is very strange," Harris says, "and for the most part it's a waste of time. Like NASHVILLE SALUTES THE EAGLES, that flummoxed me. Why do a tribute album on a group who's well known and whose records are still in print?

"But except for music journalists and musicians, most people don't know who Gram is. I wanted to point out that these wonderful songs exist. And I could hear in my head who should sing which songs. I knew Gillian Welch should do 'Hickory Wind,' and I knew The Mavericks should do 'Hot Burrito #1.'"

Once again this is Harris in her most important role as song researcher and proselytizer. It's true that she wrote or cowrote eleven of the twelve songs on her latest album, RED DIRT GIRL (Nonesuch), and it's true that two of those songs—the autobiographical title track and the song about her father, "Bang the Drum Slowly"—are surprisingly good. But it's also true that the rest of the album seems less personal, ironically, than her collections of other people's songs. In a strange way, Harris reveals more of her personality in choosing songs than in writing them.

Since her 1975 major-label debutPIECES OF THE SKY, Harris has always chosen adult songs—songs that address the issues of marriage, home, and work rather than the adolescent issues of dating, wandering, and school. And as she herself has grown older—she's now fifty-four and refuses to hide it; her undyed hair has gone silver, and she is no less striking for it—her ear for such songs has become ever more acute.

"I was working on a solo album once," Ronstadt recalls, "and I was at the bottom of the idea barrel. So I quick called Emmy up and said, 'Do you know any grown-up songs?'"

"That's important," Harris says, "because you're different at fifty than you are at thirty, so you're interested in singing about different things.

For Dylan to write something like 'Not Dark Yet,' he had to have gone through everything he's gone through to capture that heartbreak and weariness. There are no shortcuts: you have to go from A to B, B to C, C to D, and so on. Bruce Springsteen is another example of someone who has grown up; he writes about things now that he didn't know about when he was twenty or thirty.

"But a great song will not only speak to the songwriter's own generation but to younger generations, too. I think there are some primal things that we respond to, that resonate within us, even if we haven't gotten to that place in our own life's journey just yet. When I first heard Springsteen's 'My Father's House,' for example, my father was still alive, and I had a good relationship with him, but I had an overwhelming emotional reaction to that song nonetheless. It was as if I was anticipating his death."

"We've been around a bit and know a thing or two," Ronstadt points out. "One thing we know is there's more than one kind of love. We're concerned not just with romantic love but also with the love of friends, the love of family."

"There's also spiritual love," Harris adds. "There's a deep emptiness in most people, and there are many ways to fill it other than romantic love. In fact, romantic love may be the least reliable way to fill it. We're trying to find songs that speak to that emptiness."