EMMYLOU HARRIS: FINDING HER MUSICAL HOME
Making a Difference with Her Beautiful Voice


By Paul Freeman [1992 Interview]

Emmylou. To hear that name brings an appreciative smile. To hear that voice ó ah, the spirit soars. The voice ó angelic, crystalline óhas been deeply moving listeners for nearly half a century.

With distinctive, exquisite vocals, Emmylou Harris has earned 12 Grammy Awards, becoming a peerless interpreter of great songs. And she has grown into an eloquent songwriter herself.

She first earned recognition for sweetly vocalizing with mentor Gram Parsons. After his tragic passing, she became a solo artist, debuting with 1975ís ďPieces of the Sky.Ē Her music has entwined country, pop, rock, folk and bluegrass colors. Among her classic tracks are ďBeneath Still Waters,Ē ďAll That I Have is Your Soul,Ē ďSave The Last Dance for Me,Ē ďWayfaring Stranger,Ē ďOne of These DaysĒ and ďSweet Dreams.Ē

Even when recording the most familiar tunes, she makes them her own. But Harris also has displayed an amazing gift for uncovering previously undiscovered material and writers.

Over the years, Harris has collaborated with many legends, including Roy Orbison, Rodney Crowell (who was a member of her Hot Band), Nick Cave, Lucinda Williams, Vince Gill, Anne Murray, Marty Stuart, Bonnie Raitt, Neil Young, James Burton, the McGarrigle Sisters and Patty Griffin. With Linda Ronstadt and Dolly Parton, Harris created the magical harmonies of Trio.

We had the pleasure of interviewing Harris in 1992, upon the release of the live album she did with her acoustic group, The Nash Ramblers, recorded at Nashvilleís historic Ryman Auditorium. For this set, she chose material spanning such songwriters as Steve Earle, Bruce Springsteen (ďMansion on the HillĒ), John Fogerty, Bill Monroe, Nanci Griffith, Boudleaux Bryant and Stephen Foster. The album ended up winning the Grammy.

As an activist, Harris has embraced such diverse causes as animal rights, Vietnam veterans and the global landmine problem.

Hers is a career of beauty and integrity. Today, at 70, Harris continues to make gorgeous music ó in the studio and on tour.

POP CULTURE CLASSICS:
The decision to establish the Nash Ramblers ó how much of that was that due to the physical problem you were having with your voice and how much was it simply being time for a change?

EMMYLOU HARRIS:
Well, itís hard to say how muchÖ both of them were very strong factors. What I had wrong with my voice was just a viral infection that was going to go away with rest. It was not anything where I was in danger of doing permanent damage. But it made me come fact to face with the fact that I was a bit tired of doing the same thing. I had to limit the number of songs that I could sing. My range was limited temporarily. And I got to where I was doing sort of the same show over and over again.

And I realized that maybe it was time to do something different, that maybe I was having to shift my voice into a slightly unnatural gear in order to be able to be heard over top of the instruments. And maybe it was just time to put myself in a situation where I didnít know everything, where everything wasnít familiar. And to try something different. Because the creative juices can stop flowing, even if youíre in the best of situations. I certainly had a wonderful band ó no complaints about that. But I couldnít change the fact that I had plowed that fieldÖ over and over again.

And so the idea of just pulling back and regrouping and trying something different, with an acoustic groupÖ because I didnít know how it was going to be. I didnít know if I was going to like it or if the fans were going to like it or musically how limiting it was going to be. So I was very happy to find that it wasnít limiting at all. In fact, the opposite was true. I found myself being more creative. The band was able to do all kinds of things that I think that album showcases.

PCC:
Why do you think it was less limiting? Why do you think it did open up new possibilities?

HARRIS:
Well, itís just in the idea of being in a situation you donít know. Itís the unknown. I mean, thatís always good for you, creatively.

PCC:
Did you discover new things about the musical form? Or was this a familiar genre for you anyway?

HARRIS:
Well, it was slightly familiar, in the sense that I had worked with acoustic music. But I hadnít really thought of acoustic music with a drummer and being able to really drive with just an acoustic bass, while finding that there was so much more room for the vocals. And to still have that power of these intense, aggressive, wonderful musicians behind you, but leaving more room for the vocals, it was not as draining on my voice.

And it was wonderful to see what we could do, how far we could push that envelope. Finding that there was no limit to the kinds of songs we could do, which I think is showcased in the Ryman album, because the choice of material, we werenít just limited to all these bluegrass songs.

PCC:
How much is it still a question in Nashville as to what is and isnít country?

HARRIS:
Oh, I donít know. I donít really pay any attention to that. I never have [laughs].

PCC:
What for you makes it a country song? Is it just the interpretation?

HARRIS:
Well, I donít worry about it so much. I was always pushing the cause of country, because I didnít feel that there was enough of the real stuff out there. But I also realized that, if you wanted to say who has a classic country voice ó Iíve never had one. I have much more of a folk voice. But I was doing country material with a lot of conviction and passion. And so style is a product of your limitations.

In a sense, perhaps I changed the style of country music a little bit, because of the fact that I wasnít a typical country artist or a country singer. But Iíve tried to take the best of what I knew of country music and do it my own way. I donít how to classify it really. I tell people, if youíre concerned about country music is, just pick up just about any Merle Haggard album and drop the needle down on just about any track and youíll probably get some idea what country music is. But thatís still just one part of it.

PCC:
But do you feel thereís less controversy these days about a country artist recording something like a Springsteen song than there might have been a decade ago?

HARRIS:
Well, I donít know. I never felt that I was controversial. The song is a great song. If people didnít know that Bruce Springsteen wrote it, they would never consider it controversial, because if you listen to the words and the melody, it just fits. But, on the other hand, I donít have to have it pass some kind of test as a country song for me to do it. Iíve always felt that Iím mainly an interpreter of songs, who happens to champion country music. But Iím not going to limit myself to any one particular type of song by anyoneís arbitrary decision on whetherís itís country.

PCC:
What are your criteria, when it comes to choosing songs to interpret? What are you looking for?

HARRIS:
I donít look for it to be a country song. I go for a good song. And it becomes whatever it becomes. In other words, my interpretation of it becomes whatever it is because of the way I happen to singÖ or the instruments I choose to put on there.

PCC:
But is there a certain emotional quality in the music or something in the lyrics that makes it something you feel compelled to interpret?

HARRIS:
There is, but I couldnít possibly explain it to you. Itís really an intuitive thing. And frankly, I jus do a song because I really want to do it. I get excited by it. I am moved by it. And therefore I want to sing it. And hopefully, if I can sing it, and put something into it, then I record it.

PCC:
As for bluegrass, whatís the spirit of the music thatís so unique?

HARRIS:
Well, thereís so much about it. The drive of music is so exciting. I think that Bill Monroe was one of the real precursors of rock íní roll. I mean, you listen to those early albums ó there had never been anyone to come along and drive the music the way he did, with such arrogance. And it was the excitement of driving the music. The lyrics are important, too. But the music is probably more important, with the sound of those harmonies, too, much more so than the lyrics.

I think Harlan Howard said it once, he said, ďThose bluegrass pickers, theyíre not interested in the words. They just canít wait to get to the next break [laughs]. But he said that with a great deal of affection, you understand.

PCC:
Why do you think so musicians are going back to the roots now?

HARRIS:
Well, itís very financially rewarding right now [laughs], if you want to take a cynical point of view. I would like to think that itís because thereís a generation of youngsters that are just good at this and who really love it, who have listened to George Jones and Merle Haggard and Lefty Frizell and Loretta Lynn and Patsy Cline and are discovering that thereís just this wealth of music that was not played on the radio for a long time, but now, theyíve listened to it and theyíre putting it into their songs and coming up with something. So thereís some good things happening out there.

PCC:
Do you think itís somewhat a reaction to the trend we had been seeing of tons of synthesizers and over-production and that kind of thing?

HARRIS:
I donít know if itís a conscious reaction. I donít really know why people are doing the music theyíre doing. I only know why Iím doing what I do. I think that ultimately, a good song, done simply and well, is for me the most evocative and most lasting.

On the other hand, Iím not against synthesizers, when theyíre used as synthesizers. What I donít like about synthesizers is when theyíre used to be an instrument, instead of using the real instrument, using synthesized voices instead of putting somebody really singing harmony with somebody else. I think synthesizers can actually be used in a very beautiful, haunting way. I think the ďHeartbeats AcceleratingĒ that the McGarrigles did, case in point, is a combination of beautiful synthesizer work and also real instruments, to get a real haunting blend.

PCC:
What about growing up, were there particular albums or artists that really had an impact on you?

HARRIS:
Well, I sort of came to music late. I was really influenced by the folk revival that happened. So I was influenced by Joan Baez and Judy Collins and Tom Rush, the folk blues of Booker White and Son House, and all those. And, of course, Dylan was a huge influence on me. So those were influences. Billie Holiday and Edith Piaf. I was very intrigued by those sort of tragic figures of female singers, who seemed so oddly strong on one side and then victims on the other side. So there was a lot of different music that influenced me.

PCC:
Why do you think you came to it late?

HARRIS:
Well, I donít know. Music just wasnít really a big part of my family or my family life. I didnít grow up around music. There werenít any musicians in my family. And we moved around. My father was in the service, so a lot of the time was spent sort of figuring out where you were and making new friends. I didnít really have any roots that I was aware of.

PCC:
Do you think that kind of prepared you for the life of musician?

HARRIS:
Yeah, well it certainly helps being on that bus [laughs].

PCC:
When did you first realize that you could have a great impact with your voice, that people could be moved?

HARRIS:
I started singing as a teenager. I got a guitar and started learning the songs of these people that I mentioned, whatever I could play on the guitar. And at one point, I started playing in this little bar. And people got quiet. And that was when I realized that maybe I had an ability to reach people.

PCC:
What about the impact that Gram Parsons has had, in an ongoing way ó what did you learn from him?

HARRIS:
Well, he certainly showed me the true heart and soul of country music, which even though I had dabbled in country music, I didnít really appreciate before that. I didnít really hear it until I started working with Gram.

PCC:
And what was the key thing that you came to appreciate?

HARRIS:
Well, itís not something that I can explain. Itís just one day you donít hear it and the next day you do. And you wonder how you missed it. You know? It was kind of an awakening.

PCC:
Did you have a sense, after your association with him, that you were kind of carrying on his vision?

HARRIS:
Well, I think I made a conscious effort to carry on his music, because I really felt that I was just a part of his music. And I didnít exactly know what I was supposed to do. I just tried to stay true to what Iíd learned from him and to the passion for the music that he had really brought out. So he really had a very, very enormous impact on me as an artist. I donít think I would be an artist without my association with Gram.

PCC:
Do you think thatís part of the reason you havenít been tempted to go off in the direction of trends? Youíve had such an honest career.

HARRIS:
Well, thank you for that. But I think that itís just that I am happy where I am. I have my own private little gold mine. And why would I try something else? I feel Iíve found my home.

PCC:
What about in Nashville, do you feel more at home within the establishment circles there now? At one time, they had been a bit wary of anyone doing anything different.

HARRIS:
Nashville always opened its arms to me, from the very beginning. They played my records. And I got radio success that I never expected. But Iíve always just done my records and done my music. It wouldnít matter whether I was living in Timbuktu or Nashville or anyplace else. Where I live doesnít really influence what Iím going to put on record.

I do happen to like living there a lot, because itís a nice town. I have a lot of good friends there. I really love the artistic community there. Itís a wonderful community of writers and music and people who love music, just love music. Weíre always turning each other on to this or that, that weíve heard or gotten excited by. And itís a good place to raise children.

PCC:
How old are your kids now?

HARRIS:
Well, one of them is already raised [laughs] ó 22. Another one will be 13 in September.

PCC:
Are they showing any inclinations towards music?

HARRIS:
No. They like music a lot, but not for a career.

PCC:
Do they like country?

HARRIS:
Not so much countryÖ although my eldest is really enamored of Patsy Cline. But I would say, for the most part, itís rock íní roll. And thatís nice and healthy, I think.

PCC:
It seems like country is now cutting across all boundaries ó age, geography ó in its appeal. Why do you think thatís happening?

HARRIS:
You know, I have no idea. I mean, Iíve always loved country musicÖ well, not always [laughs]. But from the time I saw the light, so to speak, itís always been a passion for me. Thereís always been a good, healthy market for country. Obviously itís at its greatest heights right now. Hopefully it will stay that way, it wonít be artificially inflated, like it was during ďUrban CowboyĒ and then sink back down.

I think itís probably never going to go back to the level that it was. But itís achieving some things that are definitely going to stay. But as far as the reason for it, I donít really have any idea.

PCC:
It seems that some of the people who used to turn up their noses at country music now realize the value that is there.

HARRIS:
I still think thereís some prejudice against us.

PCC:
Why do you think that is?

HARRIS:
Well, itís country. Letís face it, country is not rock íní roll. And rock íní roll is king. So people canít ignore the fact that itís probably commercially the most successful music happening right now. But that doesnít mean that everybody has to like it. I donít know. Itís just rumblings that I hear.

But I donít think it really matters, because, when it comes to music, people are either going to be touched by music and affected by it or theyíre not. And itís either going to make a lasting impression on them or itís not. And ultimately, it doesnít matter how many records something sells. Itís whether youíre touching somebody, whether it really makes a difference in someoneís life.

PCC:
What directions would you like to see country take in the future?

HARRIS:
The only change that I would like to see is perhaps more of the left-of-center country artists that are out there, but donít get radio airplay, I wish they could get more exposure. Iím talking about the younger artists, that sort of need some kind of exposure.

Case in point, a few artists a few years ago that I think could have added a lot to the whole country music tapestry, like Lyle Lovett and Nanci Griffith and Steve Earle, who all sort of appeared around the same time and really had the door shut on them, as far as country radio. They have very successful careers outside of country music now. But they really came to country music themselves, saying, ďWe have this real affinity and this passion. We want to be a member of this family.Ē

And I think that the whole country music landscape could have been enriched by artists like them. And I think that there are still some artists that are struggling, that donít fit into the mainstream Top 40, but definitely have something to offer.

But on the other hand, itís very nice to turn on the radio and know youíre on a country station, as opposed to a few years, when there was so much pop-oriented country, that wasnít really pop, it wasnít rock, it wasnít country. So you thought, ďWell, am I on the Easy Listening station or am I on the country station?Ē And if you listened long enough, they might play Merle Haggard and then youíd know you were on the country station [laughs].

PCC:
As far as these new young artists who deserve airplay, are there any whose music has really resonated with you?

HARRIS:
Of course, Iím really not up on a lot of this country stuff. Jim Lauderdale, itís an album that I sang on, actually ó terrific album. And I know that he hasnít had any singles success. But itís a wonderful album. And I just donít understand why he isnít getting that kind of airplay. Thatís just one artist. Another artist that I really am quite taken with is Lucinda Williams. Her album is one of my favorites. So there are people out there. And weíll just see.

PCC:
It must gratifying to you that so many of the artists just breaking through now mention you as a key influence.

HARRIS:
It makes me feel old [laughs]. No, itís very nice. Iíve had some very nice things said about me. And I do appreciate it.

PCC:
The buck dancing ó is that something you still do?

HARRIS:
Oh, yes. I do it every day. I exercise to that. I enjoy it, because I like the music. I carry this board with me on the bus and I bring it into my hotel room and I can just dance. And sometimes I do it at the shows. It depends on what songs weíre doing that particular night and if itís a danceable stage or not. Itís not something I feel I have to do every night at the show. But I do do it every day for exercise. And just for enjoyment. I enjoy it.

PCC:
And with music generally, what is the magic? Is it the connection you feel? What does it do for you?

HARRIS:
Oh, thereís no way I could explain what it does for me. Youíre just tapped into something that is greater than you are. And yet you feel a part of it. And itís a very, very important part of my life.

PCC:
And thereís still a sense of discovery about it?

HARRIS:
Oh, itís always discovery. All it takes is one song to come along that I canít wait to learn. So I know that all those songs are out there waiting for me [laughs] and that theyíll just find me at some point. In the meantime, the ones Iím still doing, I still love, even the ones from my very first album. Especially getting this new band has given me a whole new life with the old material, too.

For the latest news on this artist, visit www.emmylouharris.com.