Saturday, November 03, 2007

Emmylou's Musical Journey

Emmylou Harris at the Americana Music Association keynote session

Category: News

When asked about the new four-CD box set, Songbird: Rare Tracks and Forgotten Gems, Emmylou Harris joked, “It makes a good door stop.”

Peter Cooper, the brilliant writer from Nashville’s Tennessean newspaper, conducted a long, revealing, and thoroughly entertaining interview with the country legend as part of the Americana Music Association’s sixth annual conference. The interview, the afternoon keynote of the conference, was held before a packed crowd in the Listening Room at the AMA Conference.

Harris spent considerable time talking about her friend and mentor, the late Gram Parsons, including addressing his tragic death in 1973. “People ask me, ‘Was it really a surprise?’” she said. “And I say, ‘Yes!’ Because he went from someone who was fall-down drunk on his first album to someone who was bright, vibrant, and alive by the time he recorded Grievous Angel (the album released four months after Parsons died).”

Her work with Parsons on the album GP earned her an early accolade. “I was voted the ‘13th most popular female singer in Holland’ based on those recordings,” Harris said. “Don’t laugh,” she chided the chuckling audience. “That was a big deal to me then!”

“Then” was the early 1970s, when Emmylou Harris had abandoned her desire to be a “serious folk singer” in the Washington DC area to sing with Parsons. After Parson’s death from a drug overdose, Harris returned to DC, but not as a folk singer. “I was a woman with a mission,” she said. “I wanted to do what Gram would have done had he lived.”

That mission was twofold: first, to take country music to the rock and roll masses; and second, to dig out forgotten gems and introduce them to people who had never had the opportunity to hear them. One such example was Parsons and Harris performing “We’ll Sweep Out the Ashes in the Morning,” superb recording by Carl and Pearl Butler from 1969 that flopped as a hit. “I was like a religious convert,” Harris admitted when discussing her discovery of country music and subsequent desire to follow in Parsons’ footsteps.

Warner Brothers signed Harris to a contract on their subsidiary Reprise label in 1974. “They really didn’t know what they were getting,” Harris joked. “I was part of a package deal. They wanted Brian Ahern, and they got me in the deal.” As she worked on her first album, she noticed, “The record company ignored me, in a good way.”

Left to her own devices, she released Pieces of the Sky in early 1975. The first single, “Too Far Gone,” bombed. “It was 99 with a parachute,” Harris joked. Things went much better with the second single, a song Harris believed “was the most unlikely hit on the album,” a cover of the Louvin Brothers’ “If I Could Only Win Your Love.”

Harris’ career was off and running with a string of albums that appealed to both rock and country fans. In 1980, she decided to make a bluegrass-flavored album, Roses in the Snow, and for the first time she encountered opposition from her record label. “The record label wanted what Brian and I call ‘son of Elite Hotel,’” Harris said. “I just felt I had to jump off the deep end.”

Another “deep end” jump was 1985’s The Ballad of Sally Rose, a concept album (“’concept,’” she said, “is a euphemism for ‘we don’t hear a hit single’”) based on her relationship with Parsons. “It’s very autobiographical,” Harris admitted, but added, “I took a lot of license with the story.” The album was a failure despite unanimous critical success.

Harris was able to recover from that setback, but the second “flop” of her career, 1995’s Wrecking Ball, essentially ended her run on country radio. Harris, however, has no regrets for the ambitious project, produced by Daniel Lanois, best-known for producing rock albums such as So by Peter Gabriel, Robbie Robertson’s debut solo album, and The Joshua Tree by U2. “Wrecking Ball wasn’t a scary notion," Harris admitted, "because I had nothing to lose.”

With a commercial career behind her, Harris continues to record on her own terms. “I’m the poster child for being able to survive hit radio,” she said proudly. “It’s a big mistake to just your career by your radio hits.” She still finds the music that interests her and shares it with her loyal fans.

“The thrill of discovery is still there,” she said.

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