By Drew Ailes
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By Tom Murphy
Of her own harmony work, Harris says, "Whether you're singing with one person or two people, you create another voice that can only exist because of those two parts, which I'm constantly amazed by. You come up with something you never could have imagined before. Every event when you go in to sing with someone is an adventure."
Singing with Bob Dylan, for example, Harris says she "was overwhelmed to be in a studio with him. You can imagine going from being a folkie who just worshiped him to going into working with him, to see how he works. I didn't have too much time to think about it, because I was too busy trying to follow his phrasing -- it's extraordinary. He's still one of my favorites and inspires me the most, but I could say that about Neil Young and Kate and Anna McGarrigle. And obviously, singing with Dolly and Linda, we create a fourth voice that is quite beautiful, and that's a wonderful thing to be a part of. I just did a couple of things with Mark Knopfler over Thanksgiving, which I'm really excited to hear when they come out. Of course, I loved doing the record with Willie, too, being able to do a whole record with him [on last year's Teatro]. That's one of the easiest jobs I did, because Willie only believes in two takes, max. So there was Willie on one side, Daniel Lanois on the other, and a group of wonderful musicians in this fantastic old renovated theater. Everyone could see everyone, and it had a sense of being live -- which it was. The tracks were mixed as soon as they were finished, and it was just a matter of whether I could write the lyrics out fast enough for the next take so I could sing on it."
Harris also just finished a project she describes as "quite wonderful," a singer-songwriter in-the-round series of five concerts to raise funds and awareness for the Campaign for a Landmine Free World. Harris took on the cause after a friend started working for the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation; the organization's campaign to ban land mines won a Nobel Peace Prize in 1997. Harris had read a magazine article about how there are approximately 100 million land mines still in the ground, and she says she was "astonished something like this existed and I was totally ignorant about it." Working with VVAF president Bobby Muller, she began rallying her fellow musicians, and when the campaign changed its focus from trying to ban land mines to trying to get rid of those already in the ground, Harris did a show with Willie Nelson, Sheryl Crow, Lucinda Williams and Steve Earle to announce that new direction. The recent series of shows saw combinations of artists including Nanci Griffith, Mary-Chapin Carpenter, Guy Clark, Terry Allen, Bruce Coburn, Kris Kristofferson, John Prine, Steve Earle and Patty Griffin sitting on a stage, each taking a turn doing a song. "If we knew the song -- and even if we didn't -- we would chime in singing," Harris says. "It was a wonderful series of shows for a good cause, and I also think they were interesting for the audience, because you seldom see something like that. It's an intimate, stripped-down situation; you're talking about the songs, and there's a lot of interaction. You never know who's going to sit in on guitar or add a harmony vocal here or there."
Though she's been to Washington to lobby congressmen, political themes rarely show up in Harris's recorded work -- the most political it gets, she allows, is the medley of Griffith's "It's a Hard Life Wherever You Go" (which evokes images of racist Americans in Chicago and children playing in the unsafe streets of Belfast) and Richard Holler's "Abraham, Martin and John" on 1992's At the Ryman, an otherwise classical hillbilly album recorded at the home of the Grand Ole Opry. Not that she's opposed to overtly political themes, she says, but mostly she's drawn to "the politics of the heart more than political situations."
Yet one of the big lessons Americans have learned over the last quarter-century is that the politics of the heart are plenty significant in and of themselves. And Harris, who spent her pre-Gram Parsons years playing such folk songs as "Where Have All the Flowers Gone" and "A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall" in New York cafes, also understands the importance of the spiritual songs she has always included on her albums, many of which are credited simply to "Traditional." "I don't know if I'm religious, but I love religious songs," Harris says. "They have the most beautiful melodies, and the lyrics are so poignant; maybe I'm just hoping something good will come off on me. I'm just a sucker for the songs that have intense emotion, and you find that songs that deal with spiritual matters are just very intense, so they're pretty hard to resist."
There's also an inherent political power in the mere act of promoting community and crossing borders the way Harris has simply by singing with so many different musicians, though she is circumspect about that element in her work. "I don't know," she says. "The music business or community is not really that large, especially when you talk about certain types of music. You could probably decide there are six degrees of separation with just about anybody and come up with a connection. It certainly wasn't conscious. Musicians, by nature, like to collaborate and enjoy hanging out, and when the opportunity comes to hang out and record..."