For years, I thought of Emmylou Harris as just another aging country singer — one of a hundred my middle-aged mom and music-loving aunt adored. It wasn’t until I discovered a vinyl copy of the Alabama-born, Virginia-raised singer/songwriter’s 1975 album Elite Hotel that my opinion changed. First superficially, as Harris’ jet-black, knife-straight hair and knee-high leather boots worn for the album shoot lent her a mysterious, exotic air absent from her dignified, silver-maned present; and then artistically, as I dug into her 45-year discography and discovered just how far-flung a creative existence she had led.
There was her escape from college in North Carolina to Greenwich Village circa 1966, a fortuitous discovery by The Byrds’ Chris Hillman, her travels with Gram Parsons, her evolution into a respected traditionalist, her early championing of eventual legends like Rodney Crowell, Townes Van Zandt and Ricky Skaggs, collaborations with members of Elvis Presley’s entourage, and her multiple Grammy wins. All this before the 1970s ended.
“I had a very successful and gratifying career with my music,” Harris tells Folio Weekly, reminiscing about how folk-rock pioneer Parsons helped her transform from a narrow-minded folkie to an all-encompassing artist who helped create the Americana genre by mixing material by Loretta Lynn, The Louvin Brothers and George Jones with songs by Dylan, Joan Baez and The Beatles. “We didn’t have [the term] Americana then because we didn’t know what we were. ‘Americana’ had to become something because of all the people making music that didn’t fit into a particularly neat category.”
Harris’ bona fides were further burnished in the ’80s and early ’90s: a No. 1 album with Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt, hit recordings with Roy Orbison, becoming a full-fledged member of the Grand Ole Opry. But the peaks started to be flecked with valleys: 1985’s all-original “country opera” concept album The Ballad of Sally Rose; creatively fertile but commercially unsuccessful stabs at purist bluegrass and gospel; the dissolution of her legendary Hot Band in favor of an acoustic lineup; country radio’s sudden veer into youth-dominated territory.
But 1995’s Wrecking Ball changed all that. Recorded with U2 producer Daniel Lanois, the expansive and richly textured rock-oriented album livened up her sound and introduced Harris to a much wider audience hungry for hard-nosed authenticity.
“A few years before Wrecking Ball, I wasn’t really getting played on the radio, and creatively I had gotten into a bit of a doldrum,” Harris says. “It’s a natural thing that happens when an artist has been around for a while. So the opportunity to work with Daniel and his different musical landscape was incredibly inspiring and invigorating. It also brought me to a whole other world of music listeners — and the main thing is that they liked what they heard. You can’t just be the flavor of the month; you have to come up with the goods musically, and Wrecking Ball did that. I’m probably still riding that wave in a way.”
Throughout it all, she’s maintained an impressive balance of originals and interpreted songs: three full-lengths since Wrecking Ball have consisted mostly of self-penned material, while four, including last year’s Grammy-winning collection of duets with Rodney Crowell, Old Yellow Moon, were all covers.
“For the most part, I’ve always been an interpreter, and I’m still an interpreter,” Harris says. “I don’t ever want to give up being an interpreter. But if you can write your own songs, it’s important to put the effort into that. I play the same three chords I learned when I first picked up the guitar at the age of 16, and my singing voice has aged. So I’ve always felt the need to bring something new to the table besides just my ability to sing songs.”