Emmylou Harris: A chat with a legend
Golden-voiced singer discusses her career
by Steve Hammer
For the last quarter of century, the name of Emmylou Harris has stood for quality, graciousness and dignity in country music.
Aside from her legendary work with Gram Parsons, Harris has produced more than 20 solo albums, many of them gold, all of them priceless. Her shimmering voice is as familiar as that of any other artist, male or female, in the genre.
Her most recent album, Building the Wrecking Ball, is an ambitious project produced by longtime Peter Gabriel and U2 producer Daniel Lanois. It features guest performances from Neil Young and Larry Mullen Jr. of U2 and was atop many critics' best-of lists in 1995 and 1996. Harris will bring her legendary live show to Indianapolis on May 5 at the Vogue. Call 239-5151 for ticket information. Last week, Harris talked with NUVO music editor Steve Hammer about the album, her tour and her opinion on the state of current country music. The critics seemed a little confused by Wrecking Ball. What do you make of the critics' opinions on this one? The critics have been overwhelmingly into this record. The few people who don't get it are people who think that I should be doing what I did before. But that's confusing to me, because I don't think I've ever stuck to just one formula. But I will admit that, as much as I've zigged and zagged over the years, that this was a pretty big zag. [Laughs] How did you hook up with Daniel Lanois for this album? I met him through his records. I discovered his solo album around the time I discovered the album he did with Dylan, the No Mercy album, and I became a really huge fan, and so I started looking for his other work and realized a lot of my favorite records were ones that he'd produced: Peter Gabriel, Robbie Robertson and the Neville Brothers. Of course, I was familiar with his work with U2. So then, when I was sort of given a green light to work with anybody I wanted, I said I wanted to work with Daniel Lanois. So some phone calls were made, and it turned out he had some time and interest. I didn't meet him in the flesh until we were talking about working together. So what contemporary artists do you listen to? [Pause] Let's see. Contemporary. I try to keep up with what's going on. I like Patty Griffith very much. I think she's made an astonishingly brave and moving album. She's garnering some fans the hard way; she's out there in the trenches. We did a tour last year with a great band called Innocence Mission. I like them very much. I do like Beck, and, um, there's a lot of artists out there. I love Lucinda Williams. She's been out there a while, but I don't think the world has discovered her. I don't listen to Top 40, so I don't know what's popular there. But I do listen to alternative radio. If something interests me-I just bought a Drivin' and Cryin' record. So I'm always stretching out. But I still listen to Bill Monroe. I still listen to Loretta Lynn. Merle Haggard. So I listen to all kinds of music. What's your take on all the female singer-songwriters who've emerged over the past few years? I think a lot of them can draw their roots back to Joni Mitchell probably, and later, Rickie Lee Jones. You're being a little humble. You're an influence on a lot of them. Well, I don't really consider myself an influence. As far as a working woman on the road, yes. But a lot of us have been out there a long time. My God, Bonnie Raitt has been out there for years. Loretta Lynn, she's been out there. I know what you're saying. It seems like there's been this female population explosion. There are a lot of great women out there: Shawn Colvin, Patty Griffith. And of course, Tracy Chapman is making great records. The McGarrigles have always made great records. It does seem like there have been a lot of young'uns coming around. [Laughs] Gram Parsons is such a mythical figure to people these days, almost as if he was some kind of superhuman. Could you tell us something very mundane about him, just to put him in perspective? Gosh, well, it always seemed like he let his food cool until it was almost cold before he'd eat it. He was really very funny, and a very generous person. Very bright. I don't think he ever did any damage or hurt any human being except himself. Do you miss those days? Do you wish you could turn back the clock? Turn back the clock. Oh, I don't know about that. Certainly I have a very special place in my heart for Gram and that time. That was the real seminal time for me. What I became as an artist was forged in that time. That holds a very important place to me. I can't even imagine going back in time. I don't dwell on that time. Do you find that performing live holds as much excitement for you as it once did? Yeah, oddly enough it is. I think there were times where I was at a low ebb and I kept going because it was all I knew, plus I had to, or thought I had to. But right now, I'm really excited. I got such a creative surge from Wrecking Ball, not just as a recording artist, but, now, performing these songs with a band. I can't wait to get out on the road. We take a couple of months off, and it's like, "Where's the gig?" What kind of material are you playing this time around? Mostly the new material or - Well, the lion's share of material will be from Wrecking Ball, but there'll be material from all the other albums. It's hard to showcase everything when you've got 20 albums. But there's certain songs that seem to shimmer with this band. I like to think about stringing songs together like a string of pearls, or a string of beads, but ultimately it has to be stuff that really works with the band, and gives a spin to the older material. One interesting thing I read in a bio about you: you were a beauty pageant contestant as a teenager. That had to be an interesting experience for you. Well, I wasn't very politically correct as a teenager. I just wanted to popular. I was like every other teenage girl. It wasn't horrible. We're talking Woodbridge, Virginia. I mean, there were seven girls in the contest. What can I say? They actually asked me to be in the contest. I was very interested in going to college and I told them I wasn't interesting in going on if I won. And they said they didn't care. I did win and I did get the money. But I was Miss Woodbridge. It wasn't like I was Miss Virginia or anything. But I did get the scholarship money. Did you have a tiara and everything? Of course I had a tiara. I wouldn't be in a beauty pageant without a tiara! Can you tell me what you think of the current state of country music? I find it pretty vapid and bloodless. You listen to Bill Monroe and he sings about the dark side of life. There's an inherent adultness and grabbing the mettle of the other side of life that is kind of not there in country music right now, in what's being heard on country radio. I listen to Lucinda Williams' new record, and that girl has some soul. But you're not going to hear her on commercial country radio except via performances by Patty Loveless, who I think has done some great stuff, and Mary Chapin, who is great. There are a couple of exceptions to the rule, because it can't all be as bad as it appears. You turn on the radio and it's very greeting-card. Very generic. Very cookie-cutter. And sometimes I feel like there's one male singer and one female singer out there cutting all the records with the same band. And yet I know there's good stuff out there. But it's not being heard, and I think at some point this mass popularity of country is going to explode, that it's going to eat itself. But maybe not. Steve Hammer E-mail: email@example.com Web: http://www.nuvo.net/hammer/