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.
"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."
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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