Farther along

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

Harris did indeed belong on The Last Waltz as the country-music representative because she was, in 1977, as country as it got: Here was a singer who brought the Louvin Brothers, Don Gibson, Butch Hancock, Buck Owens, Gram Parsons, Townes Van Zandt, even Bruce Springsteen to the same table and served them as equals. She not only recorded their songs with the passion of the true acolyte, as someone who came to country late and then absorbed it as both wise student and ardent lover, but she somehow managed to reconcile their individual visions into something singularly her own.

Those who dismissed her as "just another pretty voice...a country singer by accident," as Village Voice critic Robert Christgau did during one of his crankier moments, didn't understand that she transcended the genre; she was more than country, more than pop, more than folk--a category all by herself, among the finest singers (male, female, whatever) to record Jimi Hendrix and Charlie Louvin during the span of a remarkable history. She was Linda Ronstadt with a soul you could touch, Dolly Parton raised on rock and roll, Gram Parsons' onetime pupil who ended up eclipsing the short-lived master.

"I always thought of myself as somebody that didn't have a country-sounding voice," she says now. "I chose to do country music, and because of the limitations of my voice in that genre, I was able to change it. We all are a product of our limitations--I read that somewhere--and it really is true, because otherwise, it would all be Muzak, right? I think we're kind of approaching that in a way in a lot of areas, but Robbie Robertson sort of wanted something that was more of a hybrid, which was the way he explained it.

"I realized then that when he said, 'We want you to represent country,' he was talking about a different perception, something that was perhaps more of a hybrid. And even though I was a hybrid, what I was drawing from was very pure, but I was just having to come up with something different. And in a sense, I guess that's what The Band did too, because they were obviously influenced by a lot of different music."

Amazingly enough, after all these years, this year's model is perhaps the finest yet. Portraits is hardly the cardboard tombstone that most boxed sets represent--maybe a semicolon, hardly a period. It's perhaps telling that Harris can't even come to listen to the box in its entirety, and that when she does listen to her older material, she does so from a distance, as though looking through the wrong end of a telescope.

"The idea of actually sitting down and listening to it is the last thing on my list of priorities," she says, slightly laughing. "If I had a list of things to do in my life, that would be on the very, very bottom, to go back and listen to what I've done. But you have to move forward. I'm always moving forward. I've never been a person that dwells on the past. You just have to reinvent yourself poetically.

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