Farther along

Emmylou Harris has a new boxed set, but she won't be trapped by that cardboard tombstone

She does not stick out in the dilapidated lobby of Los Angeles' Farmer's Daughter Motel on Fairfax, just across the street from the restaurants and product bins of the Farmer's Market. Her famous long hair--black with road-map streaks of gray running through it--is tucked underneath a plain black baseball cap; she wears a Billy Bragg concert T-shirt that she partially covers with a jacket. With her 17-year-old daughter, Meghann, in tow, Emmylou Harris--one of music's most elegant performers, a woman who often resembles a fragile ghost come to life--looks like just another tourist in town to see the sights and the stars as she passes through L.A. No one even gives her a second glance as she strolls through the Farmer's Market--"I lived here for seven years," she says as she peruses the produce bins, buying some fruit to take back to the room, "and I've never been here"--so anonymous does this striking woman appear.

Harris lives in Nashville now, but she comes to L.A. as often as she can to visit her daughter. She'll agree to perform the occasional benefit concert or record a backing vocal for a friend so she can see Meghann, a freshman at USC and a DJ at the school's radio station (she plays at least one song by her mother during every shift). The two of them drove out here together awhile back, Meghann's bike and computer and albums piled into the back of a five-speed van, and mother and daughter slept only in motels then too. Harris is in town this time to lend her vocals to Nanci Griffith's forthcoming album and to maybe sing on Lucinda Williams' long-delayed and troubled American Recordings debut. For Griffith's record, Harris performed with Meghann and Carolyn Hester and Hester's daughter--a real family affair, Harris explains, smiling over a cup of coffee and a plate of powdered-sugar beignets.

"It really was just a lovely day in the studio," she says, smiling. "My mother had baked a homemade apple cake made with pecans from Nanci's father's pecan trees in Texas, and I brought it out from Nashville to here, and we had it in the studio, and we were all singing together, so it was kinda like a cottage industry--a very Mother Earth kind of nurturing day in the studio."

Harris does not plan to go into the studio to record her own album for quite some time; she is still out on the road promoting last year's Wrecking Ball, which she recorded in New Orleans with Daniel Lanois--and one that proved how remarkably Harris has been able to evolve over the course of a career that began in the late 1960s, when she performed in Virginia Beach clubs as a would-be folksinger. Featuring songs by Jimi Hendrix ("May This Be Love"), Lucinda Williams ("Sweet Old World"), Bob Dylan ("Every Grain of Sand"), Steve Earle ("Goodbye"), Neil Young (the title song), even Gillian Welch ("Orphan Girl"), the album is breathtaking proof that even 49-year-old career veterans can evolve. Every note was a surprise--especially coming as it did shortly after her acoustic bluegrass band called it quits--and every line a revelation.

Ethereal, delicate, almost like a whisper, Wrecking Ball is a far cry from the country and bluegrass albums of the '70s and '80s that made her a Nashville star. Even more astonishingly, coming as it does more than two dozen albums into a career that began during her association with country-rock pioneer Gram Parsons in 1971 and wound its way through collaborations with such icons as Don Everly and Roy Orbison and The Band and Dolly Parton and Willie Nelson, Wrecking Ball ranks among her finest albums--this haunting jewel among so many other gems.

Then, Harris was never a country artist in the first place--though the just-released three-CD boxed set Portraits, a wide-ranging collection that spans the course of her recording career on Warner Reprise (from 1975 to 1992), might lead one to think otherwise. Such albums as Pieces of the Sky, Elite Hotel, Luxury Liner, Blue Kentucky Girl, Roses in the Snow, The Legend of Jesse James, Cimarron, Bluebird, and Brand New Dance placed her among country's elite as a performer fluent in the languages of Bill Monroe and Buck Owens and Johnny Cash. But Harris prefers instead to think of herself as a "hybrid" artist, which is only fair.

Few singers of any genre can take a song and make it their own, imbue it as she does with so much heartfelt compassion and genuine emotion that you would never believe she didn't write the words herself. Listen to her performances on the previously unreleased take of Richard Thompson's "Dimming of the Day" or Townes Van Zandt's "Pancho and Lefty" or the Louvin Brothers' "The Angels Rejoiced Last Night" or her duet with Parsons on Boudleaux Bryant's immortal "Love Hurts": Others might have written the songs, but she elevated their poetry into the realm of easy truth. She gives body to the ephemeral, and she wouldn't even consider walking into a recording studio until she can carry with her a dozen or so songs she wishes she had written.

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