Farther along

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

"For me, I suppose, singing is what other people experience when they meditate," she says. "Singing is a total immersion. When you've got the song and you love the song and say, 'I want to sing this song,' and then you go in to record it, and the band is playing and the rhythm section's playing, and it all connects, that's about as good as it gets on this planet for me. I think the most important thing is to keep yourself open to surprise."

The Alabama-born, Virginia-raised Harris (her father was a Marine, and the family was always on the move) is a onetime wanna-be folksinger who recognized the limitations of her own writing (her long-out-of-print debut, Gliding Bird, released in 1971, contained five of her own songs--the same number as appear on the entire boxed set) and of her voice, which never fit her own definition of a pure country voice. To her, the perfect country singer is someone like Dolly Parton or Loretta Lynn, honky-tonk angels who grew up in the mountains and sang as though from the heavens; they were her inspirations but not her ending points, her muses but not her masters.

It wasn't even until Blue Kentucky Girl in 1979 that Harris cut a full-on country album, ditching the Beatles and Chuck Berry covers that dotted her first three records and going full-tilt. But critics insisted she was still sticking to her non-formula formula, and most point to the bluegrass Roses in the Snow in 1980 as her first country record (though it contained a cover of Paul Simon's "The Boxer").

"When I did Blue Kentucky Girl, I did make a conscious decision to do a country album, because it was a reaction on my part to people who had said, 'Oh, sure your country albums sell, but that's because they're not really country albums,'" she explains. "And it might be the only time I really listened to the press. I took it as a personal challenge because I did want to champion the real poetry of country music, and so we decided we would do a country album and sort of break away from the eclectic formula.

"At first, Blue Kentucky Girl was not a success; it was a disaster. The record company didn't understand it, it wasn't selling, the critics just said I was doing the same old thing, and so we just said, 'OK, we'll go even deeper. If they don't think that's a country record, we'll do a bluegrass record,' and Roses in the Snow is what they call my country record when it's really my bluegrass record. See, these people should be issued the Bill Monroe boxed set before they ever write about music. This is required listening."

It was appropriate, then, that when The Band decided to film The Last Waltz in 1977, Robbie Robertson asked Harris to join the affair as the country representative. At first, she balked at the invite--not only because she was touring in Europe, but because she felt she didn't merit such a distinction. She asked Robertson why he didn't get Parton instead: "Her voice represented to me the real purity of that mountain side of country music," Harris says now, "that real Celtic connection that came into country music--much more so than a traditional country voice like Kitty Wells or Loretta Lynn, which to me are the real standards of what a real country voice should sound like."

But Robertson persevered, and Harris agreed to film a dream sequence for the film and record Robertson's "Evangeline" for the epic companion album. Harris, though she didn't realize it at the time, was to "country" what The Band was to "rock and roll": They were both bastardized creations of the entirety of American musical culture and history, musicians who existed at a brief moment in time when definitions didn't matter and genres seemed to blur into one another.

Rock was still in its relative infancy, country belonged to the hippies and the outlaws for a short time, the blues was momentarily in the hands of the white-boy Brits who championed old black men from the South; it was a time of experimentation, a time when a handful of wonderful musicians (Bob Dylan, Randy Newman, and Willie Nelson among their slim ranks) realized that "cultural history is never a straight line," as Greil Marcus wrote in Mystery Train. They bent that history to suit their whims, reclaimed and reinvented the music that had come before; that's why Bob Dylan and Muddy Waters and Neil Young and Joni Mitchell could share the stage with The Band during that last waltz through America's musical history--because they all dived into the mud together and wrapped themselves in the roots.

"When you get to the roots, the more you see the common pool music comes from, especially in this country," Harris says. "It's so rich. That's probably going to be our contribution to civilization. America is going to be remembered for maybe cars, guitars, and music, and that's OK. We don't need grand opera. The other countries did that, right? When they send that disc out into outer space for the other civilizations in far galaxies to hear, we'll have the Everly Brothers and Muddy Waters and George Jones."

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