The Rebirth of Emmylou Harris
"I think anytime you make a record, it's got to be a leap of faith," contends Emmylou Harris. "Because you never know how it's going to turn out."
Harris has plummeted into the unknown on numerous occasions over the course of her more than a quarter-century of performing and recording, with mostly positive results. But even longtime supporters were staggered by last year's Wrecking Ball, a stunning sonic curveball that married Harris's delicate, crystalline voice to an adventurous soundscape constructed by producer Daniel Lanois. In retrospect, though, no one should have been caught off-guard. While she's only a couple of years shy of her fiftieth birthday, Harris remains an artist willing to take chances. As befits a woman with a particularly pure worldview, she describes this facet of her personality with exquisite simplicity. "Change has been my friend," she says.
Attempts to pigeonhole Harris over the years have proven fruitless, but that hasn't stopped observers from trying. Even Wrecking Ball, a recording that features compositions by Steve Earle ("Goodbye"), Neil Young (the title cut), Bob Dylan ("Every Grain of Sand"), Anna McGarrigle ("Goin' Back to Harlan") and Jimi Hendrix ("May This Be Love") has suffered the ignominy of classification; those who voted for this year's Grammy awards anointed it Best Contemporary Folk Album. But Harris, now the possessor of seven Grammy trophies, isn't complaining about this absurd label. "I was just happy to find myself in a category and be nominated," she claims. "And the category itself was kind of interesting, because I started out as a folk singer, which cast me in the die of eclecticism. There's really been a pretty strong thread of that running through all of my albums except for just a few--and even on those, that quality snuck in a little bit."
"If there's been any formula at all to my career," she points out, "it's been a non-formula."
Her upbringing made Harris comfortable with sudden shifts in direction. The daughter of a Marine, she was born in Birmingham, Alabama, but grew up on a series of military bases scattered across the American South. In the late Sixties she moved to New York City and caught the tail end of the venerated Greenwich Village folk scene. She made a long-deleted folk platter for the tiny Jubilee imprint during that period, but it was her early-Seventies collaborations with Gram Parsons that first brought her to the broader public's notice. Her harmonies on Parsons's two gorgeous solo recordings, 1973's G.P. and 1974's Grievous Angel, set a country-rock standard that has never been matched. Her love for Parsons, whose work with the Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers is an integral reference point for contemporary acts such as Wilco and Son Volt, echoes with her every note on these efforts, giving them a resonance that seems immune to the ravages of time.
After Parsons's October 1973 death, Harris embarked on a career that initially was burdened to some degree by her desire to preserve and extend his musical legacy. Pieces of the Sky, released in 1975, included a cover of a song by the Louvin Brothers, among Gram's favorite combos, while Elite Hotel, from 1976, featured three Parsons compositions. But Harris soon developed her own style, assisted in part by her backing group, dubbed the Hot Band. Rodney Crowell, Ricky Skaggs and Albert Lee, among others, received their first widespread attention while working for Harris under this banner, and they've never forgotten it. (Crowell, for instance, co-wrote Wrecking Ball's winning finale, "Waltz Across Texas Tonight.")
Despite the quality of the music she made with the Hot Band, however, Harris eventually became restless. "I made certain records in the early days of the Hot Band, but then I felt I was drying up a bit," she divulges. "And that's when I got the Ramblers together."
The Nash Ramblers, that is. The group, which featured Sam Bush, a founder of the New Grass Revival, and Roy Huskey Jr., whose father was a regular contributor at the Grand Ole Opry, took a traditional approach to country music at around the same time that artists like Dwight Yoakam were exploring similar territory. At the Ryman, a live recording from 1992, captures the Ramblers at their peak. The musicians are as adept at covering works by old-timers Bill Monroe and Boudleaux Bryant as they are rendering ditties from the pens of Kieran Kane, John Fogerty and Bruce Springsteen.
Some of the Ramblers also appeared on Cowgirl's Prayer, a pleasant 1993 release. But country radio kept its distance--as Harris puts it, "They really haven't invited me to their party for a long time." The reason, she believes, has a great deal to do with the upswing in country sales and the pressure that goes along with it.
"That's the downside of popularity," she says. "The definition of country is a bit narrow right now. There are a lot of talented people out there, but it seems that they're being forced to narrow their vision and keep to a certain style in order to get played. Which is a death knell to creativity.
"I don't mean to be completely negative about country. Every once in a while, someone rises to the top who's done it his way or her way. Like Alison Krauss--she's had wonderful success, and she's stuck to her guns."
So has Harris. Instead of making the followup to Cowgirl's Prayer a valentine to the country marketplace, she moved into an entirely new arena with Wrecking Ball. What spurred this switch was a chance conversation with a staffer at her record company, Asylum. "I was asked if I had thought about trying a different producer to kind of shake things up," she recalls. "And I said no, I actually hadn't, but if I could work with anybody, I would like to work with Daniel Lanois, because I was so moved by his records. It was just an idea, but it turned into reality when Daniel had the time and the inclination to do it."
Lanois, a solo artist and Brian Eno protege who's best known for his work with Peter Gabriel, immediately took control. "I just sort of turned the ballgame over to him as far as picking the musicians and so on," Harris concedes. "And he put together a really interesting ensemble."
Players such as U2's Larry Mullen Jr. contribute to the texture of Wrecking Ball, as do a number of special guests--Neil Young, Steve Earle and Anna McGarrigle among them. But what really makes the disc hang together is the fragile, mysterious mood Lanois and Harris create. "I thought of my voice as an instrument in the ensemble during the recording process," she allows. "I don't ever like to think of myself as the person out front, with a backing band behind me. I always feel better being part of a whole. And so with Daniel, I brought him a bunch of songs that I liked, and we started from there. We knocked around ideas and tried some different things in the studio. It was very much a team project."
For her part, Harris says, "I didn't know exactly what I was going to do, but I never do. And that's actually one of the wonderful parts of making a record. I love the surprises and learning how you can unlock the meaning and the emotional impact of a song."
Her tremendous success in this regard on Wrecking Ball has followers eagerly awaiting her further adventures. But Harris knows better than to try and rush inspiration. "This album has turned out to be a real gift that came to me mainly because I paid attention to the opportunities that presented themselves," she remarks. "And fortunately, I find myself in a really lucky place. There's not this pressure to sell millions of records. I have a smaller, pretty loyal audience that I think likes change and wants to be surprised. And I feel that I always will find an audience for what I do. Whatever that is.
"I'm still pretty intensely involved with this record. But I have a confidence that at some point I'll know what I'll want to embark on next. I don't know what it will be or when it will be, but maybe I'll know by then what fork in the road I'll want to take."
Emmylou Harris, with the Innocence Mission. 9 p.m. Friday, April 19, Ogden Theatre, 935 East Colfax, $20, 830-2525 or 1-800-444-