Back on her first album, 1975's Pieces of the Sky, Emmylou Harris recorded a song called "Boulder to Birmingham." Until that album, Harris had been known mainly as the harmony singer for Gram Parsons, the hippie country artist credited with inventing the genre of country rock. But two years earlier, Parsons had died of an overdose, leaving Harris on her own. In "Boulder to Birmingham," Harris looks out of an airplane window, struggling bitterly with the emotions brought on by that loss. She doesn't want to hear a love song. She doesn't want to hear a sad story. She finds comfort in the lifeless emptiness of the prairie and the sky. "I would walk all the way from Boulder to Birmingham," she sings on the chorus, "if I thought I could see your face."
The song became one of Harris's signatures. It's the first track on Portraits, a 1996 boxed set that traces her long career as a country singer; she recorded it again on last year's Spyboy, a collection of live performances that, despite its retrospective feel and countrified material, could only be called a rock album. On the 1975 version, a pedal steel dripped quiet tears while Harris contemplated whether traffic noise out on the highway could sound like the ocean washing her clean. "Baby, do you know what I mean?" she sang, in a sweet girl's voice, as if to a boy. On Spyboy, Harris's voice is sweet like aged liquor; it's weathered, wavering; it cracks. "Baby, do you know what I mean?" she sings, like someone who's seen too much of the world -- and knows that her audience has, too.
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So when Harris performs the song at the Boulder Theater over the New Year's weekend, as she most certainly will, it won't have added meaning just because the song mentions the town where she's playing. It's a long walk from Boulder to Birmingham -- as it has been from that first version to the most recent version, from Harris as Parsons's backup singer to Harris as one of the country's most revered artists. Since 1975, Harris has sung or played across a spectrum of genres, with Bill Monroe, Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison, Johnny Cash, Bonnie Raitt and Willie Nelson, to name just a few of the classics, with younguns like Lucinda Williams and Steve Earle, and with surprises like Luscious Jackson, U2's Larry Mullen Jr. and, at one year's Lilith Fair, Lisa Loeb. She's made several recordings with Neil Young, who influenced Pearl Jam and Nirvana -- and when you start tracing those sorts of bloodlines, Harris becomes one of the godmothers of American music in the last quarter of the century. So a Harris concert on this particular New Year carries a distinct historical relevance, and it seems especially appropriate to mark that in the town she named in that early, but still vital, song.
Emmylou Harris and Spyboy, with Mighty Squirrel, 9 p.m. Friday, December 31 and Saturday, January 1, Boulder Theater, 2032 14th Street, Boulder, $34-$62.50, 303-786-7030
Harris admits a unique connection to Boulder: "It's always a special place for me," she says. "It's the first place I played on the road with Gram Parsons." And she has good friends here -- her college roommate lives in the area. But, she says, the town's name wasn't particularly significant when she was writing -- Boulder made for good alliteration with Birmingham, a choice that came to mind because that's where she's from. The song, she says, "just fell into my lap." And she didn't make a special effort to play Boulder on this particular holiday -- it was the only offer her manager told her about, she says a bit sheepishly. "Normally, I don't do anything on New Year's -- I've never gotten the whole thing about New Year's. I usually stay at home or go to the Radio Cafe in Nashville to see the Esquires, which is Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings in their incarnation of a rock band. It's a neighborhood thing."
What's exciting for Harris about the Boulder gigs is that they're a chance to get the Spyboy band back together for the first time in more than two years. On that album, Nashville musician's-musician Buddy Miller, along with bassist Darryl Johnson and drummer Brady Blade, created something approximating the dense ambience that rock producer Daniel Lanois had achieved for Harris on 1995's somewhat controversial Wrecking Ball -- only live, with playing that sounded sometimes like a runaway train, sometimes like an angel band, sometimes like the thick miasma of Mardi Gras at 3 a.m. "I have missed playing with those guys," Harris says. "I took a sabbatical, let the band go, left my record company, left my management, and wanted to put my energies into writing." The year ended up being busier than Harris expected, however, particularly promoting Trio II with Linda Ronstadt and Dolly Parton (a sequel to 1987's hugely popular and Grammy-winning Trio). This year also saw the release of Return of the Grievous Angel, a Parsons tribute Harris co-executive-produced, which added Beck and Chrissie Hynde to her deep, wide river of collaborators.
"I asked them to work on the record, but they asked me to sing with them," Harris explains. When she sought out artists to participate in the project, "we had a pretty big master list, and we didn't really look for people who maybe had an obvious connection [to Parsons]. We weren't going against that, but we felt that the criteria should be people who had cut their own path and gone their own way and were individual voices, not just literally in the sound of their voices, but in their body of work. Because I felt that that was what Gram did. These were people who hadn't necessarily explored the veins of traditional country music, for example, the way he did that and married it to his own generation."
Harris could easily be talking about her own body of work. Although she's known as a country singer, she's defined the genre very much in her own terms. Ask '70s arena rockers Nazareth, for example, whether "Love Hurts" -- a Boudleaux Bryant song Harris performed with Parsons on 1974's Grievous Angel -- is country music. Ask Phil Spector, creator of "To Know Him Is to Love Him," which Harris recorded with Parton and Ronstadt on Trio; or Lennon and McCartney, whose "Here, There and Everywhere" showed up on 1975's Elite Hotel; or Paul Simon, who wrote "The Boxer," which Harris sang on 1980's Roses in the Snow; or Bruce Springsteen -- his "The Price You Pay" graces 1981's Cimarron. Or ask Jimi Hendrix, whose "May This Be Love" shimmers on Wrecking Ball. If Harris's Birmingham drawl brands such songs as country, its grainy edge also places those such as the traditional "Wayfaring Stranger," from Roses in the Snow, or Townes Van Zandt's outlaw story "Pancho & Lefty," from 1977's Luxury Liner, out in a harsh, contemporary wilderness.
Harris credits Parsons with helping her learn how to use her voice "as an emotional instrument, learning how to sing with the economy of phrasing inherent in country music -- I don't have a traditional-sounding country voice, and following those guidelines allowed me to find the particular sweet spot -- not just in my voice technically, but also emotionally, because I never limited myself to just traditional country songs."
And that most recent "Sweet Spot" -- the one currently in rotation on KBCO -- is testimony enough to Harris's eclecticism. A track off of Western Wall/The Tucson Sessions, this summer's album of duets with Linda Ronstadt, the song is starkly minor-keyed; against only an eerie three-note baritone guitar repetition and a quiet, almost "Funky Drummer" background, Harris sings odd couplets such as "Baby, when you're growing old, I'll be your solid gold" and "When you want to play along, I'll be your Mah Jong"; there's no real chorus, except the occasionally repeated "I'll be your sweet spot." Harris harmonizes with herself alongside Ronstadt's subtle echo; at one point the harmony is simply one of them -- it's impossible to tell who -- whispering into the microphone.
The sound is newer than anything playing on the nearest modern-rock/alternative radio station. Harris gives all of the credit to her "Sweet Spot" co-writer, Luscious Jackson's Jill Cuniff. Cuniff doesn't play on the track, but it was the sound of her demo that producer Glyn Johns tried to re-create. "Her stamp is all over that sound," Harris says. "I would have never, ever come up with a melody or groove like that." But the fact that a couple of women-over-fifty make such startlingly fresh noise playing music energized by a young hipster is further testimony to those fertile bloodlines. Also responsible is Johns, who has worked with artists ranging from the Who and the Rolling Stones to Midnight Oil and Belly and who Harris says "could be the greatest recording engineer in the history of pop music. He laid down the rules of what things were supposed to sound like, and he believes in miking things right from the get-go, getting it live off the floor. Then you go back and get a little, but you don't obsess over it. It's a beautifully, beautifully recorded record. Linda and I turned the whole thing over to Glyn, and as long as we had material that we liked, we knew he was going to get it on tape as good as you could get it."
That includes a take on Leonard Cohen's "Sisters of Mercy" that sounds only a little bit like something you'd hear at the nearest Renaissance festival; more typical is a striking trio of cuts toward the end of the album. There, Harris and Ronstadt's harmonies sound like a warm, heavy rain on Patty Griffin's desperate surrender, "Falling Down"; that's followed by Harris's tragic but sinewy lead vocal on Patty Scialfa's you-can-leave-town-but-you-can't-outrun-yourself "Valerie"; finally, the two women promise to serve as that cosmic though eternally elusive figure, the perfect mother -- unconditionally comforting, always protective, able to remove pain and mistakes, a nearly erotic presence -- in Sinéad O'Connor's "This Is to Mother You." Griffin and O'Connor are two of their generation's most raw singer-songwriters, while Scialfa -- Bruce Springsteen's sexy backup singer and wife, as well as the mother of his children and a singer-songwriter in her own right -- may in fact be that ultimate mother figure.
"I was so delighted that we did that song," Harris says of the Scialfa track. "Her songs are pretty raw, too. She's a pretty great writer. Her solo record [1993's Rumble Doll] is very underrated -- I loved the sound of the record. She created a whole sonic and emotional world that was totally her own, and I thought it was a shame that it came and went and people still think of her as Mrs. Bruce Springsteen, but obviously, that's the price you pay." As a harmony singer herself, Harris especially appreciates Scialfa's work. "Some people who sing harmonies have voices that are very chameleon-like -- they're like mortar, and if you hear the voice by itself, it doesn't have character. She has an extraordinarily distinctive voice, yet has this ability to blend -- I would love to hear her singing with other people, too. Certainly the marriage of voices with her and Bruce is astonishing. I just saw her again when I was on tour with Linda. I took a train down to a show in Washington, D.C., and they did 'Mansion on the Hill,' and it tore me up, it was so exquisitely beautiful."
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."
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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..."
But again, Harris's observations about other musicians speak volumes about her own contributions. One thing that struck her about watching the Springsteen show, she says, was how the show was "really a triumph of music and celebration, showing the 'dark and the sunny side of life,' as A.P. Carter said. [Springsteen]'s able to give a real realistic picture of what happens when we're alive on this planet and somehow make it into a celebration without feeling like you've gone to something 'feel-good' -- he's reaching into issues that people deal with. Especially as we get up there a little bit, we think about lots of serious things that come along. But he still lets us rock out, which is also very important."
Undoubtedly, the members of Harris's audience, many of whom are also "getting up there a little bit" (even if that is No Doubt's Gwen Stefani gushing about Harris on VH1's "100 Greatest Women" special), know exactly what she means. It's the same thing they hear in songs like "Boulder to Birmingham."