Emmylou Harris (illustration by Andy Friedman)
To legions of music fans, Emmylou Harris is a goddess. Revered as one of the greatest harmony singers and song interpreters of our age, this graceful artist claims a place in the high court of Americana royalty.
So, how did she get here? With talent, certainly. With instinct, when it comes to both her material and the company she keeps. And with the spirit of a warrior, unafraid to explore new avenues.
Like a lot of artist’s stories, this one starts with a big break.
Emmylou Harris was born in Birmingham, Alabama, raised in North Carolina and Virginia, and got serious about music in college. It was 1971 when Chris Hillman caught her performing and recommended her to fellow Flying Burrito Brother Gram Parsons, who was then working on his first solo album.
They formed a legendary pair at the forefront of a brand new genre. They worked on two albums, GP and Grievous Angel, toured together, and made magic happen on songs like "Love Hurts" and "In My Hour of Darkness" (co-written by Parsons and Harris) from Grievous Angel. But by the end of 1973 he was gone, and Harris was left in the wake of a hurricane to carry forward with their vision.
For most of her career Harris has stood at the center of Nashville and everything it means to people, but she has never been defined by it. Her major label debut, Pieces of the Sky, came out in 1975 and introduced songs like her own "Boulder to Birmingham" and a cover by her favorite singer Dolly Parton, "Coat of Many Colors."From that first solo step through her 40-plus year career, Harris has proved to be too eclectic to neatly classify.
Her instincts led her to pull together great players and great songs, regardless of where they came from. That may have meant she’d never become a mainstream country superstar, but it left her work open to the appreciation of fans from the folk, rock, and bluegrass worlds.
Among those fans were the many artists who wanted to sing with her. In the Seventies, Linda Ronstadt, Guy Clark, Neil Young and Bob Dylan all called on her talents. She covered Lucinda Williams' "Sweet Old World" with Neil Young in New Orleans and sang "Evangeline" with The Band for "The Last Waltz." She added songs by this new family to her albums, including Parton, and her up-and-coming discovery Rodney Crowell.
The Eighties were no less a journey of discovery for Harris. She sang with Roy Orbison, covered Paul Simon and even Donna Summer (Curious? Here's "On the Radio.") Harris wrote a country opera, The Ballad of Sally Rose. That may not have been a big hit, but it marked the first time she wrote more songs than she covered, which would be an eye-opening experience.
The Trio project with Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt was the biggest commercial success of her career, in 1987. She took that success and put it back into the community, becoming a member of the Grand Ole Opry and helping to resurrect the Ryman Auditorium, recording 1991's At The Ryman there (and returning in May 2017 to celebrate the 125th anniversary of the venue).
But Harris never stopped taking risks. Her landmark 1985 Wrecking Ball album with Daniel Lanois brought her the slavish appreciation of rock fans, who promptly bought up every old Grievous Angel LP they could find. She is the one singing with Willie Nelson on Teatro. She is also the one singing with Ryan Adams on Heartbreaker. (Adams describes the first time they sang together.)
It is worth pointing out that in her care, these collaborations became a community. Among other group projects, Harris put together the Concerts for a Landmine Free World series, with performance tickets and recordings benefiting veterans’ efforts in helping innocent victims of war. She also co-produced the 1999 album Return of the Grievous Angel: A Tribute to Gram Parsons, honoring her late friend and artistic partner, which included contributions from Beck, Elvis Costello, Sheryl Crow, Wilco and many others.
The 2000s were an exciting time: Harris released Red Dirt Girl, which reached her fans in country, rock and folk, plus earned one of her many Grammy awards. (As of this writing, she has been awarded 13 Grammy awards, from 46 nominations. Forty-six.)
Then came the huge O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack and its documentary concert film, Down from the Mountain (featuring the ethereal "Go to Sleep You Little Baby"). Her songwriting led the way through 2003’s Stumble Into Grace, and her tour the following year was like a dream come true for alt-country fans, including Gillian Welch, David Rawlings, Buddy Miller and Patty Griffin.
But why stop there? Harris worked with Conor Oberst on Bright Eyes vocals in 2005 ("Land Locked Blues" from I'm Wide Awake It's Morning), and followed that with an Elvis Costello tour that summer. Neil Young’s Prairie Wind album and Heart of Gold concert film followed that. Her collaboration with Mark Knopfler, All the Roadrunning, was a hit on the charts and on the road in 2006.
Another genre-busting album, All I Intended to Be, brought Harris together with a new, bluegrass-based band, starring at MerleFest, the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, and then the Lilith Tour of 2010.
The most recent collaboration for Harris has been with her old friend Rodney Crowell (Nonesuch posted a joint interview with the two from 2013). They recorded two albums together and earned Americana Music Awards for both their efforts. And Crowell is just one of the many artists who went on to greater acclaim after sharing a spotlight with Harris—the long list includes Bill Payne, Herb Pedersen, Albert Lee, Ricky Skaggs, Vince Gill and Sam Bush.
We learned a lot about Harris when we asked her to be WFUV’s first-ever Artist of the Year and performer at our annual Gala in 2008. She brought her personal magic to our world for an evening, and in return we got to introduce her to Dodgers announcer Vin Scully— it turns out she’s an enormous baseball fan ("When I became a big baseball fan decades ago," said Harris, "I would turn down the sound of the television to listen to Vin Scully call the World Series on the radio for many years, because radio is the medium.")
In between tours, Harris founded an animal shelter in Nashville called Bonaparte's Retreat, and is still reaching for the goal of having a zero-kill city. The dogs are lucky to have her.
Harris was honored by her peers in a 2016 tribute show in Washington, D.C., The Life and Songs of Emmylou Harris: An All-Star Concert, released last year as a live album and DVD. But Harris is hardly resting on her laurels; she's on the road constantly and in June 2017 joins John Mellencamp's Sad Clowns and Hillbillies tour
For keeping an open heart and mind, even when it meant an uncertain future; for keeping her eye on the prize of building a loving community of artists; for never wavering in her devotion to song—we honor Emmylou Harris as one of our FUV Essentials.