EMMYLOU HARRIS: TRUTH IS STILL THERE
illustration by rachel merrill
One quiet night in 1971 changed the course of Emmylou Harris’ music forever. She was playing with her folk trio at a Washington, D.C., club called Clyde’s, and it just so happened some members of the Flying Burrito Brothers were in the audience. Gram Parsons had recently left the band to pursue his solo career, and Chris Hillman knew he was looking for a female singer to add vocal harmonies to his sound, a new fusion of rock and country Parsons was calling “cosmic American music.” They became close friends and collaborators. The story takes a sad turn in 1973, when Parsons gave up his life to his vices. Harris took the gifts he gave her and created her own sound. With a soul-stirring voice and wise, heartfelt lyrics, this dog-loving songwriter continues writing, performing, and using music to help the world as best she can. Her classic collaboration Trio (with Dolly Parton and Linda Rondstadt) has just been re-released with unheard songs, and oh my goodness, it’s as amazing as you can imagine. This interview by Daiana Feuer.
So you’re bringing Trio back?
Emmylou Harris: In September they’re releasing the two complete Trio records with another disc that will include outtakes and alternate takes. There’s lovely stuff on that people have not heard before. That’s exciting. It was great working on the project, listening back. I don’t usually go back and listen to things from the way, way past of mine. But listening to Linda and Dolly, and being able to sing with them—and especially the things that did not see the light of day before—that was a nice present. Right now I’m touring with two gal friends that I’ve worked with over the years, Pam Rose and Marianne Kennedy, wonderful singer songwriters. They’re basically my band with Chris Donahue who was in my band Red Dirt Boys. So it’s just a quartet. He plays beautiful lead acoustic guitar. Marianne plays mandolin and percussion. They’re both extraordinary singers. I’m going to showcase them on a song, because people have to hear what they can do with each other on their own. It allows me to do a whole different body of material. Put the Rodney stuff on the backburner for a while. Touring with him was another present to me. All those years of friendship and collaboration—finally able to do the duet record we talked about almost forty years ago—that was great. But now it’s time to do something different. The only way you can keep yourself fresh is to change things up a bit. As long as its real for you and resonates for you. And I’m certainly enjoying this new body of material. It’s old material but I haven’t done it in a while so it becomes new again.
What was the dynamic like between you, Dolly, and Linda? How did you sort out the parts?
Emmylou Harris: On the basic level, Dolly had the high part, I would sing the middle and Linda would sing low, even though Linda had the widest range of all of us—she has a beautiful operatic range and a beautiful head voice. We would try different voicings and see which worked best with a particular song, and which gave the most emotional impact. That was fun because one of the things that we shared as friends and artists was our love of harmony. It was never a matter of, ‘Oh, you’re singing more lead than I am.’ It was always about the song—what was going to make the song shimmer. There was nothing about those recordings that wasn’t fun. And besides—Dolly was so funny. We are all pretty funny when we get together. It was an absolute joy making those records.
How did you become friends?
Emmylou Harris: Linda and I met … I was on the road with Gram Parsons. It was 1973 and she was opening for Neil Young. And we happened to converge in Houston, Texas. They were playing the Astrodome and we were playing at a little club across the tracks, Liberty Hall. Gram and I were doing two shows that night, so we went on later and after they played, Neil and Linda and all them converged at Liberty Hall for our second show. It was a quick introduction and then Gram said to Linda, ‘Well, come on out and sing with us.’ And after the show we just bonded. One of the things we bonded on was, ‘Well, who’s your favorite female singer?’ And we both said Dolly Parton. And of course that was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. How wonderful was it that a few years later we were able to meet Dolly, become friends, and make those records.
I love watching the performance videos. It’s like magic.
Emmylou Harris: We never toured but there are a few television videos on Youtube, I guess.
Good old YouTube, keeping history alive.
Emmylou Harris: Boy—I’m finding all kinds of stuff accidentally. Things just pop up and I’m like, what, somebody recorded that? It’s kind of strange in a way but there you go.
When you see yourself in another moment in time, do you feel like that’s you, or is there a disconnect—like you’re living multiple lives?
Emmylou Harris: That’s an interesting question. I think there’s a little bit of both. It’s you but then it’s somebody else. It’s a strange thing to watch—that’s why I usually probably don’t watch! One of the things that dogs teach us is to live in the moment, and to not dwell in the past or worry about the future. I think they’re a real gift to us. It’s really hard for human beings to do but then dogs … that’s their gift to us. Forget about what’s going on and take me for a walk. Plus they’re the best friends. They keep you grounded. Unfortunately this year we have to fly for our tour but if I was on a bus I would bring one of my dogs. I used to bring two big dogs with me on tour. Rodney has a little dog named Mono, and we actually had three dogs, band, and crew on one bus. They got the front. We were in the back.
What was Nashville’s music scene like in the 1980s when you jumped in there?
Emmylou Harris: I moved there in 1983. Well, I’m pretty insular. I moved here … Rodney was here with his wife Rosanne at the time, Hank Devito from my Hot Band moved here, Guy and Susanna Clark. It was a songwriting community. We lost Guy and Susanna—Susanna died four or five years ago. It’s still a songwriting community. Buddy and Judy Miller live here. I just kind of hang with my friends and feed of that sort of community. It almost feels like there’s a Nashville inside of the big capital of Nashville. For me it hasn’t really changed that much. I still have my friends. There’s a lot more traffic. The Nashville TV show has brought more tourists, but I try not to let it affect me. That show has nothing to do with the real Nashville. If the show reflected the real Nashville, it would be very boring because everyone here likes and supports each other. That drama is not the way we do things here. All the artists, the songwriters, the musicians—everyone supports each other.
It’s weird to think of mainstream country as having anything to do with the original country music.
Emmylou Harris: Well, obviously it’s changed but America has changed. So many of the early artists from the 40s, 50s, 60s, were from rural areas, and music was new and fresh and roots music … of course it got polished. And now, I’m not exactly sure. I don’t really know what country music is right now. We just lost Merle Haggard this year. Huge losses this year. It’s been rough. Their music will always inspire a new generation, I believe that. Every generation reinvents itself poetically and every generation has to draw on the past but also bring something authentic from their life into it. We don’t have the rural lifestyle that country music came from anymore. That’s disappearing in the age of city culture. But I think the hard truth that they speak of—you know, heartbreak, death, and the difficulty of life—it might take on different forms but basically they’re universal truths that music, when it really succeeds, when it really touches the heart … I don’t believe that will ever change. We can’t say, ‘Oh, let’s go back and make music like it used to be.’ We have it to listen to and inspire us—the kernel of truth is still there. I just believe in the power of music and creativity. I believe there will always be a song that will come and just make us drive off the road when we hear it.
I can’t get away without asking you to speak about Gram Parsons. You probably have to talk about him every time you talk to anybody.
Emmylou Harris: I don’t mind. Gram was the beginning for me. Yes, there were other things like folk music—Bob Dylan and Joan Baez got me to pick up the guitar and learn songs and sing. But I found whatever voice I have, that is, if there’s any authenticity at all, it came from singing harmonies with Gram—working with him, simplifying what I was doing, bringing that soulfulness of country music. I was born in Alabama but I was raised on military bases. Music didn’t have a hold on me until folk music came around in the 1960s, and it came to a peak working with Gram. I owe him so much. He helped me find my voice. That is a fact that will never change.
When he passed, did you feel like, ‘OK, it’s on me—I have to carry on what he gave me?’
Emmylou Harris: I certainly felt that way. First of all, I had found my voice and this music that I wanted to make with Gram and he was gone and somehow I had to carry on. I had no choice. So I had to put a band together. I had lost my teacher. I had lost my mentor. Fortunately I had wonderful people—other musicians who were there to make music with me—who believed in me. I had a great support system. I was lucky to hook up with a wonderful producer, Brian Ahern, and I had a record label that supported me, Warner-Reprise. And then of course the fans. A lot of them were Gram fans in the beginning—people who were curious. What was I going to do? They wanted to see. Gram believed in me—I must have something. And I just had to come up with the goods.
This seems like such an important time to care about what’s going on in the world. What humanitarian efforts are you involved in now? How did you get into them and why are they important?
Emmylou Harris: In October I’m going to be involved in a series of singer-songwriter concerts—Patty Gryffin, Steve Earle, Buddy Miller, and myself, Milk Carton Kids, and there’ll probably be some other guest people sitting in—to raise money and awareness for the refugee crisis, but specifically for education programs in the refugee camps, like music and art, English classes, computer lessons. It was put together by a friend of mine who put together these land mine shows years ago that we did with the same group of people, raising money and awareness to ban land mines, which is still a crisis going on. The world is in such a mess—there are so many problems. But if you can hook up with the people that do the hard lifting and put together these programs, [you can] show up with your guitar, and try to do something. I find that most musicians are involved in some way to alleviate the suffering that is going on all around us. I just got back from a trip to Ethiopia. The organization co-sponsoring these shows is a Jesuit refugee service—they’ve been around since Vietnam, doing things all around the world. Of course the worldwide refugee situation has been going on since then—probably before, and it’s come to a crisis now, and they’re really involved with education because these young people are still full of hope and belief in the future and perhaps the goodness of the world. Education—true education—is the key to any positive outcome and progress. We also have to provide food, safety, a place to sleep, but we need to feed the soul and feed the mind.
That’s what music can do for people. It does feed the soul.
Emmylou Harris: I believe in that. I’ve been doing it for that reason for a really long time. Otherwise it’s been a really big mistake all these years! Of course it’s also given me a really great life and a great deal of joy. I’m so grateful to be able to give back. But it would not be possible without these people who spend their lives tirelessly dedicated to easing the suffering around the world. Entertainers—artists—can show up and do what they do, and do what they can.
It really seems like the world is in total chaos.
Emmylou Harris: There’s always been disasters in the world. But these are heavy times. There’s about 64 million people that are homeless that are refugees. Something has to be done because it will certainly come back to bite us if we don’t help these people. I mean, it’s the right thing to do. It’s very complicated and I’m just a simple artist singer-songwriter so all I can do is just show up and use my voice to help a little bit. But the whole world is going to have to come together and decide: Who are we? What are we? What do we believe in? It’s hard to condense such a huge topic into a few sentences. There was a lovely article in the New York Times about families in Canada that are welcoming Syrian refugees into their homes. What a wonderful thing to be able to do. See, some people will shine in a moment like this. Some people have a global conscience and will feel that they can do something, while others just watch the world go by. People should realize they can make a difference. Whether it’s small or big. But there is something you can do, whether it’s becoming part of a global movement and getting involved with a cause or just making a difference in the way you see other people, the way you treat other people, that means something. I’m also very involved with animals. Dogs needs saving too! It’s not as complicated. You give them a place of safety and find them a home. That’s what I’ve been doing for twelve years now.
It started in your yard but has it taken over your house?
Emmylou Harris: Yeah! It started as a small rescue in my big back yard and we work with other rescues in the community. It has to be done on a community level. There’s been a lot of progress in Nashville. The euthanasia rate at Metro Animal Control has gone down drastically because there’s a lot of good people in this town—a lot of people with small rescues like mine. I’ve seen a lot of progress but as long as there’s one dog or cat put down, a healthy animal, because there’s no room … well, that’s one too many. We’re working to be a no-kill city. We have a sacred responsibility to all animals, farm animals, companion animals—we can deal with them compassionately. The things happening with our wildlife is coming to a crisis too. Who we are is going to be defined by how we treat other people and how we treat the animals that share this world with us. It’s up to each person to decide what they’re going to do about that.
Amidst the madness, it seems there is a rise in compassion among people.
Emmylou Harris: I want to believe that and I will continue to believe that until I’m proven wrong. That’s supposed to be an intrinsic part of who we are. We’re supposed to care about each other. We’re supposed to care about the planet. We’re supposed to care about the animals that share it with us. It is a natural thing to do. Otherwise what are we? What’s it all for?